Are we ready to leave masks behind? ‘It’s going to be weird’

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For many around the state, Monday’s planned end to the mask mandate brings a constellation of emotions.

There’s some weariness for those who expect mask requirements to return in short order if cases once again spike. Some who are immunocompromised, or caring for ill family members, are frustrated and feel left behind. Some just feel weird without a mask on their face.

For others, there’s a sense of relief.

But no matter what the feeling, with the omicron surge in the rearview mirror, mask mandates will lapse on Monday in Illinois and Chicago. The city will also remove its order that requires businesses to check that customers are vaccinated.

“I believe we will be closer to normal after mandates are lifted, or at least that’s what many people will feel like including myself,” said Lisandro DeLos Santos of West Humboldt Park.

As the legal requirements ease, businesses and individuals are left to grapple with their level of comfort for a transition to maskless public spaces.

Many public health experts say the decision to lift the mandates is sound, as COVID-19 cases have declined and more hospital beds have freed up. But they advise people with certain health conditions, as well as those who are not vaccinated, to continue wearing masks, particularly an N95 or KN95.

Restaurants and businesses may also still require masks and vaccine cards — some Chicago-area establishments have already announced they intend to keep the provision. Masks will continue to be required on public transportation and in health care settings.

And some people, regardless of their health situation, are just not ready to abandon their masks in public indoor spaces.

“It’s going to be weird or uncomfortable for people to get rid of something they’ve been wearing for the last two years,” said Dr. Sheehan Fisher, a psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Closer to normal?

Illinois has seen a steep drop in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, with the seven-day average of new cases at about 2,100 as of Wednesday. That’s down from a peak of about 32,500 in mid-January.

“We are on track to come out on the other side of this latest COVID storm in better shape than even the doctors expected,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said earlier this month when announcing the decision.

Pritzker’s move came as Democratic governors across the country have begun easing COVID-19-related requirements, bolstered by the lower case level and new treatments for the virus. Pritzker previously dropped his indoor mask requirement in most settings for vaccinated people in May 2021, but reinstated it a few months later in August when cases rose again.

The development has been welcomed by some constituents tired of restrictions, particularly those who have gotten vaccinated, followed the rules and still see no end to a heavily curtailed pandemic life.

Bill Ritchie, a native of Piper City in downstate Illinois, has become more comfortable without a mask. He feels the situation has evolved enough from the beginning that masking can become a personal choice.

“We have vaccines, we have medical know-how, we know that N95 (masks) are pretty much very good protection,” Ritchie said.

But the decision has not been universally cheered.

Wheaton resident Leslie Cummings has an 8-year-old daughter with a heart condition who has not been able to return to school yet this year. First, Cummings planned to send her back after she was vaccinated, but then the omicron surge hit. Because the wave has ebbed, Cummings had planned to send her daughter back this month, until the mask mandate was lifted.

Pritzker originally sought to continue requiring masks in schools, but an Illinois appeals court ruled against his administration in its attempt to continue the mitigation effort in schools. The ruling effectively left the decision up to individual districts, but the governor has appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

“I’m really, really angry that they just completely disregarded the high-risk people,” Cummings said. “I don’t think they are taking into account how many of us there are.”

Tashianna Bostick, who lives in the Brainerd area on the South Side, feels the state is letting its guard down too early.

“I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet,” she said. “I think infections will increase and we’ll be back where we started again.”

Bostick cares for an elderly family member who is at risk for a severe case of COVID-19. She also lives in a ZIP code that saw high numbers of COVID cases and deaths. Because of this, Bostick has been careful, rarely seeing friends and always wearing a mask in public. She will continue to remain masked, regardless of whether there is a mandate in place.

“I don’t feel comfortable with it off,” she said.

‘Don’t feel quite ready’

About a week before the mask mandate was set to lapse, a Lakeview beer cafe sent a message to patrons.

“Hey everyone, just a note from the staff here letting y’all know we intend to keep our mask and vax card mandates after the city and state end them on the 28th,” the establishment, Beermiscuous, posted on Twitter. “While we are optimistic about the city’s numbers like everyone else, we just don’t feel quite ready to part with a system that has worked to keep customers and staff safe and healthy these past few months that these mandates have been in place.”

Bars and restaurants across the city and state will be making decisions about how to handle guests, and like people, they present a range in how comfortable they are with lessened restrictions.

Austin Harvey, co-owner of Beermiscuous, which has locations in Lakeview and north suburban Highwood, says he plans to keep requiring masks and proof of vaccination, at least for the time being.

“This isn’t something we’re planning on keeping permanently,” Harvey said. “It is not our hope or plan or design to be living in a plague state forever. The numbers have gone down so quickly and that’s encouraging.”

He pointed to upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday known for drinking and large crowds, as a reason to keep some mitigation efforts for now.

But the pandemic has been brutal for restaurants and bars in general, and some in the restaurant business have welcomed the change.

“We’re very encouraged and we appreciate that they are announcing a step toward a sense of normalcy and recovery for our restaurant community,” said Sam Toia, president and CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association. “While we’re hopeful this is a sign of better times ahead for restaurants, we are still really struggling right now. January and February are real tough.”

Toia pointed to a survey of Illinois restaurants that found that 97% of restaurants reported a decline in demand for indoor, on-premise dining in January, during the height of the surge.

Toia said having some flexibility in masking and vaccination checks will be a relief to some restaurants, but he noted that some owners may still want to establish their own requirements.

“If customers want to wear a mask, by all means wear a mask,” he said. “And if certain restaurant owners and operators want to keep a mask mandate or a (vaccination) mandate in place in their own restaurant … by all means, do that.”

Other entertainment venues also run the gamut. Most Chicago-area theaters and music clubs plan to keep mask requirements. But major museums, including the Art Institute and both the Shedd Aquarium and Adler Planetarium, said they would not require masks or proof of vaccinations after Feb. 28.

‘A mental adjustment’

Some public health experts have backed the move to lift the mask mandate, but warn that it may return if cases spike once again. Doctors also advise people who are immunocompromised to continue masking.

“I think right now is potentially a good time to roll back mask mandates, but tell people not to throw them away altogether because if we see another surge, as we did this past winter, we may need to go back to wearing them,” said Mercedes Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Those who are not vaccinated or who haven’t received booster shots may also want to keep their masks on, especially if they’re in large crowds or can’t social distance, said Dr. Mia Taormina, chair of the department of infectious disease at Duly Health and Care, formerly named DuPage Medical Group.

“At this point, if you are walking around with only two vaccines or only a single dose of Johnson & Johnson, it’s just not sufficient protection if it’s been longer than three, four or five months,” Taormina said. “The safest person to remove their mask is going to be one who’s fully up-to-date on their vaccines.”

People who want to continue masking should make sure they’re wearing an N95, KN95 or KF94 mask in public — especially as other people stop wearing masks, Carnethon said. A cloth mask might help prevent the person who wears it from spreading illness, but it won’t do much to protect the wearer from others who are sick and unmasked, Taormina said.

“You wearing a simple cloth mask in the context of many, many unmasked people is not going to give you much protection,” Taormina said. “Really, we need to be in N95s or KN95s.”

But for many, medical advice is just one aspect of the decision to abandon masks. The protective measures have become an essential protection and a part of life during the last two years.

“I think it’s going to be a mental adjustment initially,” Fisher said.

If otherwise healthy people want to take it slow in regards to no longer wearing a mask, he said, they should do so. Fisher also urged people to check in with themselves regarding their mental health, noting the pandemic has been long and fatiguing, without a linear end point.

Other people, though, will likely feel a sense of freedom, he said, and relish the return of more normal, social behavior, which includes seeing people’s full facial expressions, like a smile from a stranger on the street.

“We’re going to feel like we are becoming the social beings we once were at a grander scale,” he said.