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Masks are “another critical element of our defense plan [against COVID-19],” I wrote 14 months ago in a column urging Americans, including our then-president, to put their egos aside and wear a mask. Sixteen months of social distancing, 597,000 deaths, 33 million cases and more than 300 million vaccine doses later, we are finally hurtling towards the finish line where we can drop the masks for good.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its masking guidelines on May 13, advising that fully vaccinated individuals could stop wearing masks or social distancing in most settings. Companies like Walmart, Costco and Trader Joe’s dropped their mask requirements soon after, yet not everyone has been quick to pick up their milk and eggs without their mask.
In a viral post on April 28, TikTok user Randi — or sf49ergrl86 — identified a motivating factor behind many vaccinated individuals’ hesitation to leave the mask behind.
“Um, hi, CDC, fantastic that those of us that are vaccinated can go outside without masks on,” she said. “However, any guidance for how I can do that without looking like a Republican?”
It’s not an absurd concern. Masks have been heavily politicized in the United States. A recent study from Leo Kahane, an economist from Providence College, found public masking was significantly reduced in counties where former President Donald Trump won big in 2016.
“This result is consistent with the theory that Trump supporters are looking to the president for guidance on the importance of wearing a mask to battle COVID-19 and the message they are getting is that masks are not important,” Kahane wrote. “This message may prove to be very costly in terms of economic losses, illnesses and deaths.”
Trump’s disdain for the mask did prove incredibly deadly for the United States, where more than half a million Americans lost their lives. And as the former president and many of his supporters neglected to wear their masks at the height of the pandemic, masking inherently became a form of virtue signaling.
I understand the hesitancy to drop the mask. Masking became more than a way to keep yourself safe, it was a means to signal to those around you that you care about science, our collective well-being and their safety. But whether you decide to continue masking up or not, making that decision on political principles only undermines scientists’ work throughout the entire pandemic and hinders our ability to get the entire country on track. If we begged Trump not to politicize the mask then, we shouldn’t start doing it now.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky attributed the decision to lift the nationwide mask recommendation to two primary factors — incredibly low infection rates among vaccinated people, and even lower transmission rates among those who have been fully vaccinated.
President Joe Biden, who spoke on this pivotal decision just after the CDC’s new guidelines were released, applauded the decision.
“We’ve had too much conflict, too much bitterness, too much anger, too much polarization of this issue about wearing masks,” he said. “You know, some may say — just feel more comfortable continuing to wear a mask. So, if you’re someone with a mask, you see them, please treat them with kindness and respect.”
It seems this is the case for many Americans. A study from Matt Motta, an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma State University, found that of the 48% of respondents who were fully vaccinated, just 19% plan to go maskless indoors.
And perhaps they’re right to. Motta also found that of the 21% of respondents who do not plan to get vaccinated, 26% were simultaneously planning to drop the masks indoors. In short, a larger percentage of unvaccinated people plan to go maskless than vaccinated people.
So you’ll get no lecture from me as to why vaccinated people should or should not wear a mask. Personally, I’ve completely stopped wearing my mask outdoors or while seated in a restaurant, but have no plan to, say, grocery shop without a mask for the foreseeable future.
But what is important is making these choices based on scientific research, local guidelines and our own comfort, rather than our political leanings.
The truth is, right now, there is no way to distinguish whether the maskless person buying lettuce in Trader Joe’s has been vaccinated, just as there’s no way to tell who they voted for based on that decision. What we do know, though, is that in order to truly round the corner and get America vaccinated, it is absolutely essential we stop politicizing public health.
We know the states with the highest vaccination rates all voted blue in November. We know 36% of Republicans, 31% of Independents and 6% of Democrats plan to never get the vaccine, according to a Monmouth University study. We know this number is exasperated along gender lines, with a whopping 49% of Republican men and 6% of male Democrats reporting they will not get vaccinated, according to an NPR- PBS Newshour-Marist survey. We know that in communities of color, systemic healthcare disparities still make 14% of people of color unwilling to get vaccinated, especially when it has proved exceptionally more difficult for Black and Latino communities to get vaccine access at all. We know that, by far, the largest gap in vaccination behavior exists on the variable of class, with decreased access and increased hesitancy.
The truth is, yes, there is a significant political gap in vaccination rates, masking rates and overall receptiveness to prioritizing public health. But politics are certainly not the only factor in determining a person’s willingness and ability to get vaccinated. Rather than continuing to spew divisive rhetoric, the priority can and should now be limiting all the gaps in race, gender, party and class that are hindering the country from reaching some form of herd immunity.
Perhaps the most virtuous thing you can do — rather than merely virtue signaling — is work to eliminate this divide through information campaigns and advocacy for more equitable access, rather than pointless political gripes. I am just as angry at the politicians who spread anti-mask propaganda that kept us at home for so long, but the true key to getting back to normal is vaccines, not vengeance.
Julia writes primarily about sociopolitical issues. Write to Julia at [email protected].