‘Vast majority of people will stop...’: Don’t expect people to keep masking after COVID-19 mandate lifts in Ontario, expert says

‘Vast majority of people will stop...’: Don’t expect people to keep masking after COVID-19 mandate lifts in Ontario, expert says

Starting March 21, Ontario will begin the process of dropping mask mandates across the province, including in schools, stores, and restaurants. The announcement marks the first time residents of the province will have the option to un-mask in such spaces since 2020, two years ago.

The lifting of the mask mandate has been met with mixed feelings from the public, with several Ontario school boards, a coalition of children’s hospitals, and Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table expressing concerns that the mandates are being lifted too early.

In response, the province has doubled down on the plan to lift mandates. Education Minister Stephen Lecce released a statement, saying that “school boards in this province are expected to implement this cautious plan, coupled with the ongoing improvement of air ventilation within Ontario classrooms.”

As Ontarians stand on the brink of what looks to be a major change in how their day-to-day lives have looked over the last few years, many are expressing caution.

“To be honest, I don't think I’ll be taking off my mask when it comes to indoor settings that have a high influx of people coming in,” said Zeeshan Khaliq, a history student at York University. He still plans to wear the mask, but possibly “not as much” following the 21st.

Khaliq told Yahoo News that he’s been having conversations with friends about whether or not they plan on making the shift back to unmasked life. He said that some people have asked him how long he’s going to let the “‘fear-mongering’” get to him.

“To be frank, it's not really fear-mongering. What I mean by this is that I've worn my mask for two years and sanitized my hands regularly, and the results I've seen are immaculate,” he said.

“The Great Snap Back”

University of Toronto psychology professor Steve Joordens spoke to Yahoo News about the emotional ramifications of the decision whether or not to unmask: “As we go out into the real world, we know we might’ve done everything we can do to protect ourselves and our family, but we know we could be elbow-to-elbow, shoulder-to-shoulder with people who didn’t.”

Joordens said that the lifting of restrictions has passed the responsibility to protect oneself from the virus from the government onto the individual. This may be an increased concern for those who are immunocompromised.

One question that remains is how fast this transition will occur amongst the public. Ontario premier Doug Ford was quoted in a recent press conference saying that he himself plans on keeping the mask on “for the first few days” after the mandate is lifted.

Joordens predicts that the shift back might occur quicker than expected, referring to this phenomenon as the “Great Snap Back.”

“I think the vast majority of people will stop masking. They’ll feel like it’s safe enough, they want to go back to living the way they used to. That will make it a little trickier for those people who still feel a level of personal risk.”Steve Joordens, University of Toronto psychology professor

The first reason, he said, is natural behaviour. “The human species is the most social species of them all,” he said. “Our accomplishments as a species are due to our ability to work in these cooperative, what we call pro-social networks.”

The second component Joorden identified is habits. “When you behaved a certain way in a certain context,” he stated, “Those habits will be triggered when you return.”

“So between this being sort of a natural state, and the habits of old being triggered by the context, I predict most of us will find ourselves falling right back into that old way of being, and we will love it,” he said.

However, Joorden mentioned that while this return to the old way of behaviour may come naturally for most people, that does not mean everyone.

He noted that for those who had to contend with mortal fear, generated by traumatic experiences like ICU stays or being immunocompromised, a return to normal may not be so simple.

“For these people when they try to reintegrate, they may find that they’re running into things like anxiety attacks,” he said. “I think it’s important that everybody understands that, including bosses and universities, when they order people back.

“For most of us, that’ll be pretty easy, we’ll snap back pretty quickly. But there will be a group that will find this extremely emotionally challenging, and we have to be sensitive to those people.”

Leaving mask behind may boost communication

Starting from late March and onwards as the remaining COVID-19 regulations begin to drop in April, Ontarians may see a vastly different landscape from the reality they have inhabited thus far.

“There’s no doubt that a lot of our communication is non-verbal,” said Joordens. He mentioned that some of the tone and inflection of how people intend to convey words is muffled as people communicate with masks, as well as the expression conveyed with facial muscles.

He noted that the muscles between the eyes, which are often used to convey negative emotions, are still visible, while the muscles around the mouth that usually convey positive emotions are not.

We’re not getting those positive feedbacks as clearly because of the mask. So there’s no doubt that all other things being equal, communication would be clearer and more accurate if we did not have to have masks on.Steve Joordens, University of Toronto psychology professor

Joordens mentioned that at a time when many are feeling negative emotional states or experiencing increased stress, more positive feedback could be beneficial.

“We have a lot of negative emotions and we’re seeing those negative emotions in others really clearly,” he said. “It would be really nice if we could also see some of those positive emotions to kind of counteract that.”

As for those who might hold on to the mask for longer, Khaliq remarked on some of the positives he sees from retaining the mask: “I haven't been sick since January 2020, which is amazing. Being sick was an annual event and would sometimes happen twice or thrice in a year, but now it's a thing of the past.”