My Mask, My Safety Signal

Walking around New York City these days, one might not guess that it’s been a little over two weeks since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced more relaxed mask guidelines, which state that fully vaccinated people can remove their face coverings when outside.

Last Friday, for instance, the faces of SoHo appeared largely masked, with the minor exception of outdoor diners. A walk through Harlem the weekend after the announcement presented a neighborhood with a mask-wearing rate approaching 100 percent.

Even a casual survey of the crowds in Central Park taking advantage of recent clear skies and summery temperatures suggested that most weren’t ready to take the leap. This seemed especially notable, since the neighborhoods around the park have some of the highest vaccination rates in the city.

Admittedly, not all the masks that were visible were actually covering the face. In Manhattan, at least, masks have been migrating to various locations on the body for a while now — under the chin being the most common, as it allows for quick replacement. More recently, particularly for those exercising, the favored position appears to be the upper arm. Less frequently, carried by hand.

But in all cases, firmly visible. No one, it seems, wants to be mistaken for a person not in possession of a mask.

Why? The politicization of the mask throughout the pandemic seems to be one driver. Shortly after the C.D.C. announcement, the writer Jessica Valenti tweeted about the prospect of going maskless, “How can I ensure people don’t think I’m a Republican?”

That may be an oversimplification of the matter. Not to mention, being mistaken for a Republican has never been that likely in a city that is overwhelmingly blue. But New York is also a walking city, where residents rely heavily on visual cues, so the continued masking up seems to be signifying something.

For many, that something is a genuine concern for others. I shared an elevator in my building for the first time recently with a woman who was double-masked. “I’m fully vaccinated,” she assured me, “I just want other people not to worry.” Indeed, every fully masked person I’ve interacted with in the last two weeks in my Upper West Side neighborhood has been fully vaccinated.

The social contract in New York runs deep, perhaps deeper than any official health guidelines. New Yorkers masked up early, and it’s not entirely surprising that after the brutality of last spring — when deaths in the city surged, with refrigerator trucks acting as temporary morgues — the shift back to normalcy might be on the slow side.

“It’s our social covenant,” said Tene Raymond, who lives in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn and is fully vaccinated. “I’m still in the mind-set that it’s out of respect that I have this,” she said of her mask.

For Emily Gardner Xu Hall, who lives in Harlem, her family’s experiences internationally have informed her thinking. Her parents live in London, where masking was not widely enforced and led to another lockdown when a new coronavirus variant emerged. She also has cousins in Shanghai who experienced a full lockdown in February 2020.

“A mask is the least you can ask someone to do,” said Ms. Hall, 33. “It’s a marker of, ‘Hey, we’re still in this, we can’t pretend it’s over.’”

In some places outside New York, the decision to mask up has been made even more complicated by guidelines that were relaxed ahead of official health guidance.

Bridget Todd, a podcast host and digital strategist in Washington, D.C., said she was influenced by the events of Jan. 6, when many who protested and rioted at the Capitol “were photographed in our hotels and restaurants without masks.”

“It was such a clear demonstration of the fact that they don’t respect our city,” Ms. Todd, 36, said. “I think wearing a mask is a show of respect for our city and the people in it.”

In Utah’s Salt Lake County, Tom Cook has continued to mask up fully, even though the state no longer has a mask mandate. “I wear it everywhere I go to acknowledge what’s going on in the world around me. Trying to show I’m part of a community and care about others.”

Mr. Cook, 38, said he recently entered a business and realized he was the only person wearing a mask. “I felt self-conscious. A year ago, you’d look at someone who wasn’t wearing a mask and judge them, and that’s the reverse now.” In Utah, he now feels “it’s more acceptable to not wear a mask than wear a mask.”

Amber Briggle, who lives in Denton, Texas, and owns a massage studio, implemented a mask requirement when her state reopened last May, often to the dismay of many of her clients. “It was painful. I was watching hundreds of dollars walking out the door, but I knew it was the right thing to do.” (Two months later, Gov. Greg Abbott put in place a statewide mask mandate.)

A year later, having just returned from a weekend at a resort where she said she saw many guests unmasked, Ms. Briggle, 43, continues to adhere to masking. “You don’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not,” she said. “Can you just do your duty as an American to get us out of this pandemic?”

For some communities, there are more complicated decisions at play. Ms. Hall, who is of Asian descent, said, “I’ve been in many supports groups, and there are many people who are not taking off the masks because they don’t want to be identifiably Asian.”

Even if masking rates are high in New York, its residents are not necessarily feeling judgmental. When Ms. Raymond, 45, sees someone barefaced in her Fort Greene neighborhood, she does not conclude the worst. “I assume they need a mask break,” she said. “I don’t actually think they’re trying to infect the rest of us.”

It may just be a matter of time until outdoor masks are done away with altogether. Warmer weather is coming, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the city will be fully open by the end of the month. The New York party circuit also started up this weekend with Frieze New York, which produced plenty of photos of unmasked attendees, though reports were quick to note everyone had to provide proof of vaccination to enter.

Meanwhile at Balthazar, the popular downtown eatery, the indoor dining room was notably bustling last Friday, with few covered faces in sight. (The bathroom, however, was stocked with boxes of free masks.)

“How and when people unmask is going to be variable, depending on their character and how the pandemic has personally impacted them,” said Pria Alpern, a psychologist in New York. “We need to take our time to reorient ourselves to safety in a post-pandemic world.”

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