By Elizabeth Chuck via NBC News
Masks have given some an unexpected reprieve from social expectations in addition to helping people avoid everything from colds to Covid-19.
When federal health officials recently announced that fully vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks in most situations, Jaz Johnson was among those who kept hers on.
Johnson, 46, of Kansas City, Missouri, has received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, but she has no desire to go maskless. For the past year, Johnson has avoided the colds and flu she normally gets. So has her 95-year-old grandmother, who lives with her.
In addition to helping keep her and her family healthy, masks have offered Johnson something else: the chance to hide emotions, such as contempt when someone is standing too close to her in a checkout line, or boredom when a relative tells the same story for the tenth time.
“I am one of those people that cannot lie or get away with anything,” Johnson, who works in information technology, said. “It’s been pretty fun now that no one really knows, necessarily, what I’m thinking.”
As mask mandates ease across the country, many people are finding that their affinity for face coverings extends beyond health reasons. Even with no requirement to wear their masks, some people are continuing to do so — having come to appreciate the reprieve they provide from stifling social expectations while out in public.
These mask-wearers say they see a multitude of benefits to covering up. No one can tell you to smile when you don’t feel like it. It gives you a break from putting on makeup. And it provides a degree of anonymity.
“It’s exhausting having to put on this smiling, very calm, brave face,” said Cassidy, 35, of Lake Tahoe, Nevada, who asked to be identified by first name only for privacy.
A Navy veteran, Cassidy has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia and said masks feel like a “shield” that prevent uncomfortable interactions while running errands: “I can absorb the environment in a much more controlled manner without having to think about what my face is doing, and having to think about someone seeing my face.”
“It’s exhausting having to put on this smiling, very calm, brave face.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines still recommend masking for those who have not been vaccinated. For those who are vaccinated, masks are required only in specific situations, such as on public transportation.
Baruch Fischhoff, who studies decision-making at Carnegie Mellon University, said that at this point in the pandemic, with just over 39 percent of the country fully vaccinated, there is a combination of factors at play as to why vaccinated people may still choose to wear masks.
They include showing solidarity with those who cannot get vaccinated, including young children, and signaling to others that they still care to protect one another.
Confusion or ambivalence over whether this is the right time to remove masks is understandable, Fischhoff said. Some people may have felt an instant comfort after getting their shots, while others may not have yet quite come to believe that they are protected.
“I think the psychological feeling of relief builds up, and it builds up at different paces for different people,” Fischhoff said.
For Johnson, removing her mask so quickly after the Covid-19 vaccines rolled out seemed too soon. Plus, as an introvert, masks give her comfort.
“I have a little bit of invisibility,” she said.
A flashpoint issue
Masks have consistently been one of the most divisive issues of the pandemic, and those still wearing theirs have received mixed responses.
Felipe, 32, who works in business administration for a small home health company in central Florida and asked to be identified by his first name only out of fear for his safety, recently found himself at the center of a social media maelstrom over what he thought was a benign tweet.
“Normalize wearing masks when you have any sort of cold/flu symptoms. Forever. It’s been nice to not even have a cold in over a year,” he wrote.
The tweet went viral, garnering more than 416,000 likes. But it also attracted criticism. Some people argued that he was infringing on their freedom, others called him crazy, and some called for him to be publicly beaten.
“I’m not saying it should be a law or a requirement,” Felipe said. “It’s an altruistic thought: Taking care of our neighbors, your community, your family. You can take one little step that’s not really that big of an inconvenience to help them out.”
Others feel the same way. Jason Cavallaro, 42, a primatologist in southwest Louisiana, still wears his mask most places, but believes at some point he will become what he calls a “situational masker” — putting on a mask mostly when he feels sick and must go out.
“I think in no time in history have people been more aware of their own germs as now. So to me, going forward, it almost seems irresponsible to not do things like that,” he said.
This line of thinking is backed by many public health experts.
Drs. Valerie Parkas and Beverly Forsyth, associate professors of medicine and infectious diseases and co-directors of infection prevention for the medical and graduate students at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, wrote an op-ed this month in the New York Daily News calling for people to not throw away their masks yet.
In addition to when someone feels sick and is interacting with others, masks, they argued, should be used whenever any sort of pathogen is circulating in high levels in a community.
“There may be times when the public health authorities say it’s a good time in close quarters, crowded venues, in indoor spaces, because the flu activity is so high right now, to wear a mask,” Parkas said.
Mask-wearing in the future may not look the same as it did during the pandemic, with social distancing enforced and masks on in every scenario outside of the house, Forsyth said.
But if there is a particularly bad year for the flu, with an especially virulent strain circulating, “perhaps that’s the time, guided by public health officials, that we pull those masks out and wear them on the subway,” she said.
Masks forever? What the science says
The public health benefits of masking combined with social distancing were striking this past year. U.S. flu deaths, normally in the tens of thousands annually, were significantly lower.
But while the experts see a place for masks going forward, most don’t believe everyone should wear them all the time.
“We are not in favor of masking forever or in every situation,” Parkas said. “A sense of dependency on it negatively impacts, probably, your mental health. We all need to see each other’s face, and be social people, and see friends and family. We need to hug each other.”
Nonetheless, there is no evidence that wearing a mask long-term will weaken your immune system in any way, or cause any other problems, said Dr. Benjamin Singer, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an expert in pulmonary and critical care.
“There’s almost no downside other than whatever social pressure there may be,” he said. “If a person wants to wear a mask, that’s fine.”
Singer said masks undoubtedly played a role in the reduction of the spread of illnesses this past year, but he also pointed to the protection offered by the Covid-19 vaccines. While some people say they are still wearing masks because they fear Covid-19 variants, Singer said that has not proven to be a concern at this point.
“The vaccines are amazingly protective against all known variants, but we need to keep an eye on what’s happening,” he said.
“You do get to feel like a ‘Mortal Kombat’ character every day. That’s got to be worth something.”
The evidence that has been collected so far is still not enough to convince some to remove their masks, even as others take them off.
Johnson, the Missouri IT professional, said she feels like the CDC guidance created a “pseudo-honor system” in which you have to trust that everyone who is forgoing their mask is vaccinated.
And Cavallaro, the Louisiana primatologist, wishes everyone would still wear their masks. But he knows it’s a hard sell.
“You do get to feel like a ‘Mortal Kombat’ character every day. That’s got to be worth something,” he said. “When was the last time you smelled someone’s bad breath? Over a year, right? So you choose what’s more meaningful to you.”