Will face masks be a regular part of life post-pandemic?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Public health experts are discussing the potential benefits of wearing masks even after the coronavirus pandemic has ended, citing lower cases of respiratory viruses this past winter, a broader understanding of how viruses travel among people, and an increased comfort in using face coverings when inside.

“It is conceivable that as we go on, a year or two or more from now, that during certain seasonal periods when you have respiratory-borne viruses like the flu, people might actually elect to wear masks to diminish the likelihood that you’ll spread these respiratory-borne diseases,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci on “Meet the Press.”

Why there’s debate

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently doesn’t advise using masks for the flu, although the number of flu cases was significantly lower this past year, as people wore face coverings and practiced other precautions like social distancing. The use of masks going forward will also likely vary greatly depending on geography, as they have become a battleground in the culture wars.

“Because masks have been so politicized, I think the battle will be ongoing,” Dr. Lucy McBride, a pediatrician in Washington, D.C., told Yahoo News. “For some people, masks symbolize oppression; for others, they signify the ability to control the uncontrollable.”

What’s next

Mask mandates are already being rolled back across the country as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to drop, but if there are flare-ups of the virus this fall, public health guidance could be changed to require them in indoor spaces again. As more studies are done on why exactly respiratory illnesses were down overall, the CDC and other health agencies may change their stance on advising masks for diseases other than COVID-19.


Face masks have been effective in preventing the spread of illnesses

“Mandates for public masking will be lifted, and universal masking will become less common. That’s OK. But the pandemic has unequivocally proven the public health value of masks. And they should stick around in certain situations.” — Dr. Megan Ranney, NBC News

There are mental health drawbacks to wearing face masks

“One thing we do naturally is look at other people’s faces to gauge how anxious you should be in any given situation. Wearing masks all the time has removed that, which actually heightens anxiety, when you don’t know how everyone else is feeling.” — Clinical psychologist Lina Perl to New York

There are some public settings where mask usage makes sense

“With the steady thrum of anti-mask sentiment in the U.S., it’s highly unlikely that they will continue to be a ubiquitous sight after the pandemic ends. But there are certain settings — while riding a packed subway, for example, or when visiting a loved one in the hospital — where an extra layer of protection might make sense even after the pandemic era. Like COVID-19 itself, masks likely won’t be our constant reality, but they may not fade away completely, either.” — Jamie Ducharme, Time

Mask requirements could be back if there’s a surge

“If SARS-CoV-2 surges again in the fall or winter — nationally or in specific states or counties — then the value of masks could rise again. You may end up being asked to wear a mask in one place but not another, even if you’re fully vaccinated. This wouldn’t be a contradiction or a flip-flop; it wouldn’t mean that experts can’t make up their mind and shouldn’t be trusted. It would mean that a sweeping mandate is the most effective mask guideline, in that moment, to beat back a resurgence.” — James Hamblin, Atlantic

Masks may be common in other countries, but hiding faces shouldn’t be the new normal in the U.S.

“Why is widespread mask-wearing so bad? To answer that question, start by asking yourself what a free and open society should look like. Unlike oppressed nations with regimented people, the United States cherishes transparency and discourages anonymity. Just because masks are common in many other nations — a justification often proffered — is hardly a reason to emulate the practice.” — Gary Abernathy, Washington Post

The U.S. is in a middle period — it’s too early to end mask-wearing right now

“America’s endgame for the COVID-19 pandemic must not be confused with the postgame. This wealthy nation’s vaccination progress has enabled people to entertain visions of returning to work, travel and life-as-before that still must be carefully managed. It is too soon to fling off all masks and rush into cubicles and concert halls. Now is the time to soberly assess risk and respond to facts, not frustrations.” — Editorial, Seattle Times

There isn’t scientific consensus on how much masks limit the spread of colds and flu

“The fact that the flu all but vanished in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic — and that many Americans anecdotally reported that they caught fewer colds than usual in 2020 — is not evidence alone that masks were responsible.” — Daniel Victor and Mike Ives, New York Times

Wearing a face mask when sick can help protect others

“In many offices in America, coming to work sick was expected, even a norm. Now, if I have a cough or a cold and am entering a crowded indoor area, like a movie theater or a mall or an airplane, or coming to work at the hospital, I will make sure to put on that mask. If we have learned anything from this past year, it is the extent to which we are all interconnected. So I will keep those masks around.” — Daniela Lamas, Washington Post

There are vulnerable populations who aren’t vaccinated to keep in mind

“Until we reach herd immunity worldwide ― the timeline for which is still very much a question mark ― we’re potentially exposing vulnerable populations who aren’t yet vaccinated when we travel from low- to high-risk areas. Wearing masks on airplanes or other modes of transit, as well as in public spaces if we’re among an at-risk population, can help keep everyone safe.” — Kate Mooney, HuffPost

Yahoo News Reporter Christopher Wilson contributed to this article.

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images