Over the past 14 months, whether they wore a mask or not, every American entering the public space has taken part in a fierce national debate.
Simple fabric coverings have been described as a civic duty and a form of oppression, a fashion statement and a political symbol, a communication barrier and the fastest way to show you care, a nuisance, a necessity and, most importantly, the most visible reminder of an invisible virus – a slow-motion emergency that claimed the lives of 586,000 people in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control, America’s leading health authority, wants to add a new description to the list – a holdover from a bygone era.
The agency released new guidelines on Thursday, saying fully vaccinated Americans can reduce their social distancing and forgo masks in most settings.
It should sound like a big turning point in a country that consistently dominates the world if there are a number of cases.
But as the first weekend under the new focus drew to a close, the shift in public behavior and national mood could only be described as gradual.
Turns out moving on is complicated for all of the same reasons that made masks so difficult for Americans to grab hold of in the first place.
“ We want any precaution that will make us feel better ”
âOh, people definitely wear them. I’ll always wear them,â said Tyra Flotte, a schoolteacher who lives in Maryland.
“We just want any precaution that will make us feel better.”
She feels the same about the masks she did about the vaccines. The public education system cannot force teachers to be fully immunized, but feel like a personal step that it could take to tackle something that has at times seemed too big to understand.
“[The CDC’s decision] is a bit shocking. I thought they would be cautious and give it more time. I don’t think we are ready. “
The new direction was such a surprise to the public and to the executives that it It was only days earlier that President Joe Biden told Americans to aim for July 4, Independence Day, as the beginning of normalcy.
Biden’s predecessor sparked political controversy by refusing to wear a mask. The new guidelines were met with something that has since been missing: a bipartisan celebration on how far the country has come.
“Free at last,” Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, his face beaming and bare, as he walked out of the Senate chambers.
âWe feel naked,â First Lady Jill Biden told reporters with her exposed smile. “Wait, I don’t mean it like that!”
The CDC’s decision is seen as a guarantee of success in the effectiveness of the American immunization program.
As of the start of this week, about 60% of American adults had received at least their first dose of three approved vaccines, an effort that is leading to a record number of cases.
The United States has so much supply that they have made a commitment to send 80 million doses overseas. He also began to vaccinate children from the age of 12, with the trials for young children would go well.
But experts fear that herd immunity, which would require around 75% of the country to receive the vaccine, is far from guaranteed in the United States.
Adherence to guidelines will be based on the honor system
Surveys show that 10 to 30% of Americans say they will not receive the vaccine at all, with the most hesitation from the same groups who resisted the masks first: Republicans and rural Americans.
“Much of it [CDC decision] is that it sends a message that vaccinated people are in a different category from unvaccinated people in terms of COVID risk, âsaid John Moore, professor of microbiology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Some experts say the freedom to do without a mask could act as an incentive to get the vaccine.
This is just one of the many proposals put forward by US policy makers. Depending on where you are in America, a vaccine card can get you everything from free fries and beer, to college scholarships and lottery tickets.
But these vaccine cards are not like the vaccine passports used by Israel and the European Union. Americans don’t have to carry them in their wallets or flash them to get into grocery stores or airports.
Following the new directions in public spaces will come back to the honor system and to the discretion of private companies.
Renowned retailers like Starbucks and Walmart have already revised their requirements for the entrance of the store, by removing their “obligatory masks” signs.
âThey won’t wear masks, and they will take advantage of the fact that there is no way to verify.â¦ This has proven to be problematic in the past because Americans are incredibly socially irresponsible.
“They put their own decision making above everyone else’s.”
Some Americans never followed the rules anyway
In fact, the pandemic has proven that attempting to counter American individualism with directions alone has failed to change behavior.
This applies even when the stakes are clear. Just watch it 2,600 passengers who were banned from airports due to non-compliance with airline mask mandates.
For Becky Smith, the thought of letting someone else make decisions for her – especially a government full of “selfish politicians” – is a stressful prospect. It goes against the value system around which she has built her life.
âMy family and I are very religious people. We live in the Bible belt. We study history through the church,â said the retired Texas theater director.
“Then we’ll be careful but you still have to live your life.”
When stores started needing masks, Becky and her sister, Debbie Cobb, teamed up to sew the covers by hand, placing hundreds of orders a day at one point.
“If you have to wear a mask, you might as well look good doing it,” it reads. the slogan of their online store.
âWe always have a mask with us. We are respectful of any company that wants us to wear a mask,â she said. “But in Texas, the mask’s mandate had already been lifted some time ago. It still feels like a personal choice.”
Becky knows the potential consequences of taking this choice into her own hands.
In October, both of her parents contracted the virus after her family went maskless at a birthday party.
âMy dad survived. My mom didn’t survive,â Becky said.
âIt was a tough road. We have learned our lessonâ¦ but we just need to know that it was his time.
How will Americans treat public health in the future?
This attitude is the same that makes Becky skeptical of vaccines. She wants to wait a bit before she decides to get one.
âI know it sounds so ridiculous,â she said, citing concerns about the speed of the approval process, lingering questions about ingredients and, most importantly, public pressure.
If anything, the CDC’s new directions seem to be a deterrent.
âIt’s like you’re being pushed, pushed, pushed to do something. And you have to think that there might be some other reason for that, âshe said.
For many Americans, the most comfortable response to something as unexpected and frightening as a pandemic was to rely on the individualism with which they were brought up.
There is reason to believe that, if they achieve collective immunity, the slow return to normalcy could mark a period of heightened public compassion.
Betsy Welsh hopes masks will continue to be viewed as a personal choice for years to come – but only to make their use more standard.
Her cancer-fighting husband wore N95s before the pandemic to survive during chemotherapy.
There were times, particularly during the mask shortage at the start of the pandemic, where he was faced with being overly cautious or greeted with confusion.
He may have received a COVID vaccination, but Betsy can’t help but worry about other families – she knows there are plenty of people with legitimate vaccine allergies or weakened immune systems who could quite simply benefit from increased public awareness of public health.
âI hope that over time if we see people wearing masks, we assume that maybe they have a cold and that they are protecting other people,â she said.