This is a little embarrassing to admit, but one of my favorite genres of videos to watch during the COVID-19 pandemic was “mask fights.”
Whether at Walmarts, Home Depots, in airplanes or restaurants, anywhere people gathered could become a forum for angry outbursts. There was a moment, thanks to the inane politicization of masks by conservatives, when the furious, semi-coherent rants of mask opponents were regularly captured on cellphones:
In Texas, a woman was recorded flinging her groceries out of her cart in anger after being told to wear a mask.
In New Jersey, a man was charged with making terroristic threats after claiming to be COVID-19 positive and coughing on an employee at a Stop & Shop.
And sometimes things got out of hand. In Van Nuys, a security guard at a Target was left with a broken arm after confronting two maskless men.
Maybe people like me clicked on these cringe-y links because the histrionic rejection of a sound health measure seemed emblematic of the Trump era, when science and objective truth were considered political obstacles by our monomaniacal then-president. Or maybe the videos simply speak to the irrationality in all of us, because we can relate to someone melting down in an especially indefensible way, putting personal comfort above the physical safety of others, knowing they are wrong but unable to admit it. Who among us didn't have a hissy fit — or at least want to — during the long COVID-19 lockdown?
And if a celebrity was involved, so much the better. The video of former child star Ricky Schroder demanding a refund last month for his Costco membership and later insulting the store manager’s “corporate overlords” is one of my favorites.
Schroder, who posted the May 15 encounter on Facebook, called for a boycott of Costco after being denied entrance because he refused to don a mask. He got little support and was flamed far and wide for his entitled behavior.
My colleague Michael Ordoña reported that someone even edited Schroder’s Wikipedia page to add to his body of work a 2021 film called “Angry Unmasked Guy Cancels Costco Membership.”
Anyway, I figured the days of mask fights were waning after the CDC announced on May 28 that vaccinated Americans could resume activities without wearing masks or physically distancing (if states, cities and businesses allowed).
A couple of weeks later, California “reopened” and suddenly people were parading around with their lower faces hanging out.
The other day, fully vaccinated, I tiptoed into my local Trader Joe’s without a mask. It felt transgressive — and a little germy — but so liberating. Emboldened, I later strode into Costco with nothing on my face, and was taken aback by how naked I felt in that cavernous place. Which is weird because I was fully clothed in my finest Kirkland $12 tie-dyed T-shirt and $19 camo leggings. (OK, my personal style has definitely taken a hit during COVID.)
Sadly, however, our brief moment of mask liberation was not to last.
Like a Prague Spring, no sooner had we gotten a taste of full-face freedom, when a new warning came down.
On Monday, Los Angeles County public health officials recommended that we put our masks back on in indoor public spaces such as stores, restaurants, theaters and workplaces. This is because the highly contagious Delta variant is not just spreading around the state but is expected to become the dominant strain, and although fully vaccinated people appear to have strong protection against it, we still don't fully understand it.
As health officials put it in a statement: “Until we better understand how and to who the Delta variant is spreading, everyone should focus on maximum protection with minimum interruption to routine as all businesses operate without other restrictions, like physical distancing and capacity limits.”
I can live with that. Businesses will remain fully open, we can still gather with friends and family, but indoors, in public we keep using the masks. And I don’t resent health officials for changing their advice or contradicting themselves. This, after all, is how science works.
When the coronavirus was thought to be transmitted by touch, we wiped down our groceries, scrubbed kitchen and bathroom counters, and polished our doorknobs with bleach. We washed our hands until they cracked, and spent plenty of time yelling at the kids to do the same. We still wash our hands (though not as obsessively), but now we know that the virus is transmitted primarily through respiratory droplets and is unlikely to survive for long on surfaces.
For many, getting used to masking up was a struggle. Last year, I had unpleasant moments in stuffy places when I felt like I was being gently suffocated, or when the fog on my glasses made me feel like Mr. Magoo.
Eventually, though, I was able to run three miles comfortably in a paper surgical mask.
Our household made it through winter without so much as a minor cold, and the 11-year-old has gotten so used to her mask that I have to remind her to take it off before she goes swimming.
We want this wily virus, which has killed more than 600,000 Americans, to disappear.
So put your mask on in public places.
You don't have to love it. You just have to do it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.