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WASHINGTON — When a teacher in Las Vegas told her students last month that they no longer had to wear masks in keeping with the state’s new rules, the classroom erupted in cheers. Mask mandates are falling across the country, leading to similar expressions of relief — as well as warnings that such celebrations are premature.
Judging by the speed with which even cautious Democrats are casting off mandates, it appears that these warnings are not being heeded. Last week the attending physician of the U.S. Capitol said that masking was no longer required, meaning that when President Biden delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, it will likely be before a sea of visible human faces — with some KN95s and surgical masks surely sprinkled in between.
New York state dropped its mask mandates last month. The District of Columbia, which had some of the highest mask compliance in the country at the height of the pandemic in 2020, also no longer requires masks indoors.
On Monday, California, Oregon and Washington state repealed their school mask mandates, reflecting an increasingly vociferous opposition to masking children.
“Sometimes when Americans wake up, they stay awake,” says Karen Vaites, a literacy coach who has been a proponent of letting children learn mask-free. “Normalcy will return.”
The federal government had been slow to shift in that direction. That changed last week, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revising its masking guidance to reflect hospitalizations, not just infection rates. The change provided states and municipalities with impetus to lift remaining mask mandates, except in places where transmission remained high. And it included both children and adults.
“I just know people are tired. The scarlet letter of this pandemic is the mask,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, referencing the 19th century novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which protagonist Hester Prynne is forced to wear an embroidered “A” for having committed adultery.
Masking has similarly become a potent symbol, either of protecting people or of submitting to authority — views that correlate closely with political affiliation. Despite clear evidence that masks work, Republicans have insistently downplayed their efficacy. Democrats have embraced masks as both a public health measure and a statement about altruism. Sometimes Democratic politicians have taken their caution to an arguably unnecessary degree, as when Biden walks across the South Lawn of the White House alone in a mask.
But with the Omicron wave receding and CDC guidance lifting, could it be that after two years, we are finally done with masking?
And if we are, is a society-wide unmasking premature?
“I am done with masks,” a USA Today columnist complained. “We’ve been idiotic about them since the beginning.” And that was in January, when Omicron was still infecting hundreds of thousands of people daily. Since then, mask exhaustion — and pandemic exhaustion overall — appears to have only deepened.
A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll shows a sudden swell of optimism about COVID-19, as well as the biggest decline between surveys in concerns about the coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic. Only 47 percent of Americans now say they are at least somewhat worried about the virus, down from 55 percent in early February, the lowest share to date. A majority of Americans (55 percent) now think the worst of the pandemic has passed, up 9 points since early February.
As fears of the virus wane, people are simply masking less in response. Just 53 percent of Americans, for instance, now say they wore a mask always or most of the time over the past seven days, down 9 points (from 62 percent) since early February. And America’s masking rate will likely decline further in the coming weeks, as the Yahoo News/YouGov poll was mostly conducted before the CDC issued its new guidance and the latest states relaxed their mandates.
As for the government mask mandates, just 38 percent of Americans say that it is “too soon to stop requiring masks inside.” Far more (50 percent) either believe that “it is the right time to stop requiring masks inside” (19 percent), that “masks have been required inside for too long” (14 percent) or that “masks should never have been required inside” (17 percent).
Last week’s CDC guidance represented something more than a change in guidance. It was, rather, a change in approach — one that some celebrate as long overdue but others decry as irresponsible. “The CDC’s new guidance categorizes masking as an individual behavior, rather than a community level prevention strategy and doesn’t provide a framework for policy action,” Dartmouth health policy expert Anne Sosin told Yahoo News in an email.
As a large-scale policy intervention, masking is unlikely to make the kind of comeback it did in the summer of 2021, when the Delta variant caused the CDC to reimpose, in late July, the mask guidance it had lifted in May. The Omicron variant followed quickly on Delta’s heels, frustrating any attempt to return to normal in time for the holiday season. Now, though, the Omicron wave has subsided, leaving millions with added immunity.
“I think governors are going to be very reluctant to restore mandates unless things get really bad,” Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo told Yahoo News. But she and others say that the lifting of mandates should not diminish the fact that masks are a highly effective way to stop the coronavirus — and other airborne pathogens — from spreading.
“I hope we can encourage people to use masks as part of general respiratory etiquette,” Nuzzo wrote in a text message. “I’ll probably use them anytime I have a cold and want to keep it to myself.”
Businesses can still largely mandate masking, as can other institutions. But they will soon be doing so without the official imprimatur that a government mandate provides.
In some Republican states, masks haven’t been mandated since 2020, with left-leaning counties and cities often imposing their own rules and clashing with the GOP lawmakers in their state capitols. The lack of statewide mandates in places like Florida and Texas, combined with low COVID-19 vaccination rates, likely led to thousands of deaths during the Delta surge. States that favored masking and encouraged vaccination, like California, have generally experienced better public health outcomes.
As for Democrats, the shift came in December, starting with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, refusing to require masking as Omicron surged in his state. In the weeks that followed, an increasing number of Democrats pushed for unmasking and reopening, giving voice to what they said was the exhaustion of their constituents.
Of course, few elected officials ever act without the next contest in mind. Polls show that people are increasingly tired of pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates, which could spell trouble in November’s midterm elections. The Biden administration undoubtedly wants to project to America that life is returning to something closely resembling a pre-pandemic normal.
Some conservatives thought it convenient that mask rules changed in the Capitol only days before the State of the Union. “Turns out ‘The Science’ is also a swing voter,” joked former Trump campaign spokesman Andrew Clark on Twitter.
Public health officials say that any policy change that exposes vulnerable people to greater risk is fundamentally irresponsible, no matter how tired people are of masking. About 1,700 people are still dying daily from the coronavirus, an astonishingly high figure that reflects the fact that millions of eligible people remain unvaccinated (the vaccine is not yet authorized for children under 5).
“I just see the offramp and no articulation of when and where there would be an on-ramp,” Yale epidemiologist Gregg Gonsalves told Yahoo News in a text message. He said he understood the desire to lift mask orders but worried that no efforts were being made to prepare for a time when masks, and other measures, could be needed again. “I don’t see the federal government nor state governments stepping in here to plan for the future.”
“I think that when the next wave of cases hits, masks will not return in most of the U.S.,” said Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford who has been consistently critical of pandemic restrictions. He predicted, as did others who spoke to Yahoo News for this article, that only the bluest of states — such as California — would ever move to impose mask mandates again, either on adults or children.
But others say it is simply too soon. “Masks are an inexpensive and noninvasive way to help keep transmission levels down and masking is most effective with universal masking,” Dr. Uché Blackstock, founder and chief executive of Advancing Health Equity, told Yahoo News. “It’s unfortunate that many of these mask policies are being lifted by elected officials for economic and political reasons versus evidence-based public health ones.”
In recent days, people with compromised immune systems — cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, for example, and organ transplant patients — have expressed frustration at the sense that they are being forgotten by the rest of society.
“A highly transmissible disease is only something we can confront as a society,” Boston University public health expert Julia Raifman told Yahoo News in an email. “No individual’s vaccination status or mask is sufficient to reduce its harms.”
Some have seen one-way masking as a compromise, arguing that wearing a mask even in an environment where others are unmasked offers a high degree of protection. But that approach has critics too. “One-way masking concentrates risk and burden on the most vulnerable members of our communities and visually stigmatizes them,” Sosin of Dartmouth said. “I worry that one-way masking will force some to choose between disclosing their health status and conforming to social norms that may not support masking.”
Biden spent much of the fall and winter pleading with people to get vaccinated while also leading by example on masking. But the vaccination rate has not budged significantly in months, while people who have been vaccinated and boosted wonder why they have to continue to mask, since they are at extremely low risk of actually falling ill with COVID-19. In addition, highly effective treatments for people who do become seriously sick have become available.
Even some proponents of masking say it is time to unmask — for now. “I strongly believe that now is the time to lift mask mandates, in part because they may need to return in the future,” said former Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen, citing the possibility that more infectious new variants could arise.
Much like Walensky, she believes it is only right to give people a break, even if it means having to reimpose masks again with a new surge. “To preserve credibility to reimpose mask mandates in the future,” Wen told Yahoo News, “we have to let up while we can.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Romano.