In Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult comedy, The Princess Bride, Fezzik asks the mysterious man in black a question as they scuffle atop the Cliffs of Insanity: “Why do you wear a mask? Were you burned by acid or something like that?” “Oh no,” replies the masked stranger, secretly a humble stable boy. “It’s just that they’re terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.”
This quote, from one of the world’s most quotable movies, got passed around a lot last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. You can even find it printed on a mask. More than a year later, the exchange has taken on added meaning. Why do we continue to wear masks, especially those of us who have been vaccinated (still less than half of the U.S. population)—despite the CDC’s announcement rolling back mask requirements in most public situations? Were we burned by acid or something? Maybe it just feels like we were.
Let’s not forget that for the first 10-plus months of this pandemic the country was led by a bizarrely compassion-free would-be autocrat seemingly incapable of uttering a sentence that did not contain at least one dangerous lie. Americans were put in the position of making personal decisions that had potential life-and-death consequences for every person we met and countless others we would never even see, based on information that was constantly shifting, typically self-contradictory, and far too often coming from dubious sources. We were told to inject bleach (or, even more confusingly, sunlight) into our bodies, and saw the seriousness of COVID-19 minimized. We watched a badly managed crisis shut down our most cherished public institutions, the places where we gather to learn from one another and share in the joy of living: schools, libraries, theaters, concert halls. Worst of all, we saw more than half a million of our fellow citizens—our mothers, fathers, grandparents, spouses, children, colleagues, and friends—die lonely and, in many cases, preventable deaths in overburdened hospitals staffed by medical workers haggard from exhaustion.
Even those government bodies not staffed by sociopaths—the CDC, the World Health Organization—often gave contradictory advice that left us scrambling for concrete guidance. Did we really spend months spraying our groceries with Fantastik and leaving our mail in a box outside the door for two days in order to let any virus on its surface die off? Well, yes, because the articles we were scouring for advice on how to survive suggested that we do so.
Just over a year ago, the official guidance on masks quietly migrated from “Don’t wear them at all, so that the limited supply can go to health-care workers” to “They are now required in all public places,” without any substantial acknowledgment that the previous advice had been, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong. Suddenly, in place of the listicles about high-touch-area scrubbing, instructions were circulating on how to sew your own mask from an old T-shirt or handkerchief; mask making became a thriving cottage industry on Etsy. But what type of mask was best to protect against the coronavirus? Were the KN95s that popped up for sale at a table in front of the now-closed nail salon really manufactured to medical-grade standards, or were they cheap knockoffs that would do little to filter a virus that might or might not be airborne? No one could say for sure, so we figured it out for ourselves on the fly.
Now that the reins of government have been taken by a president and a party that, whatever you think of their policy positions, at least appear united in their belief that mass death is a bad thing, much of the confusion and day-to-day terror of that first year has subsided. The speed and competency of the vaccine rollout has been nothing short of a miracle, the public-health achievement of the young century; we should all feel infinitely grateful to the research scientists, health-care workers, and public-health officials who have made it feasible to vaccinate millions of people in just a few months.
But excuse me if I, like many of the people I see around me, am not yet quite ready to expose my lower face. Early on in the pandemic, I made a vow with my family that we would set a high standard for COVID-19 avoidance. Not only were we not getting this virus ourselves, if we could help it, but we were taking no chances of inadvertently spreading it to anyone else, even if that did make for a long and lonely year without indoor gatherings and travel to see family and friends. I didn’t want to go to my grave thinking that I was a link in some chain of human interaction leading to someone else’s serious illness or death.
I still don’t. The vaccines are remarkably effective, but not 100 percent. Breakthrough infections among vaccinated people have occurred (witness the cluster of cases among the New York Yankees), and the science about whether and how the virus can be transmitted by the vaccinated to the unvaccinated is not yet certain. Putting aside the hard science for a moment, wearing a mask in public spaces—especially indoors, where transmission is more likely—serves a broader social purpose: It says to those around us that, whatever our vaccine status, we value community safety.
When I walk outside my door into a densely populated neighborhood, I know as little about the life circumstances of the people I encounter as they do about mine. Are they, like me, fully vaccinated? Or are they in between shots, still looking for an appointment, or never planning to get a vaccine at all? Might they be in chemotherapy, or otherwise immunocompromised in some way that would prevent them from either getting a vaccine or experiencing its full benefits? Do they have children at home who can’t be vaccinated yet (as I did until last week, when the Pfizer shot was okayed for my child’s 12-to-15-year-old age group)? Did they lose one or more loved ones to COVID-19, or have a brutal and possibly ongoing bout with the disease themselves? Do they work in retail, health care, early-childhood education, or some other field that requires them to be exposed to the public in a way we lucky work-from-home types aren’t?
Many Americans are still living in a state of vulnerability. If I keep a mask on in all but the safest circumstances (walking outdoors in an uncrowded area, spending time indoors with people who I know have been vaccinated), it’s to protect the emotional as well as physical health of those people—and if we’ve learned one thing during this lonely, anxious, crazy-making year, it’s that those two forms of health are inextricably intertwined.
Decisions about when, where, and whether to wear a mask will all be made by individuals—they already were before the latest CDC revision of mask guidelines. As we have seen in the fierce masking debates of the past year, no guideline or mandate will get through to that core group of people who regard an eight-inch-wide rectangle of fabric as a violation of their constitutional freedoms—a population that may well overlap with the 25 percent or so of Americans who say they will refuse to get a vaccine. Others, fully vaccinated and wanting to breathe in the fresh air of this hopeful spring, will go outside with mask in pocket, to don as needed. But if, like the man in black, some of us simply find comfort in going around with a scrap of cloth on our face, we can be forgiven for choosing to leave it there until the world feels like a safer place for everyone.