For the first time in 14 months, I sat unmasked in a home that was not my own.
There were six adults, all vaccinated. We ate, drank, laughed, gossiped, nuzzled the hosts’ lovely pooch, and marveled over the most chill baby ever. It was brunch but it felt like so much more — Christmas morning, the first day of summer vacation, the opening chords of a beloved song. It was both normal and, given the past year, miraculous.
Three hours later, we said our goodbyes. And as I walked out the door, I put my mask back on.
I’m fully vaccinated, and still masking up outdoors.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that most fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks outdoors, except in certain crowded settings. Some who meet the criteria aren’t yet ready to give up their masks, and they’re being met with ridicule and and worse.
Brookline recently made national news because the town is sticking with its outdoor mask mandate. CNN’s John Berman grilled Dr. Swannie Jett, the town’s health and human services director: “Are you concerned that by keeping this mandate in place, you’re not giving that unvaccinated population an incentive to go and get the shot?”
Jett flipped Berman’s question. “If you keep a mask mandate in place, it might give them incentive to go get the shot. And remember: COVID is not over. The pandemic still exists.”
That we’re still living with this pandemic is, of course, irrelevant to Tucker Carlson, Fox News’s sentient Confederate flag. He’s encouraging his zealots to confront outdoor mask wearers, even suggesting that if a child is seen wearing a mask, someone should regard it as abuse and call the police.
In “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown,” Emma Green, a writer for The Atlantic, finds another tiresome way to politicize mask-wearing, saying that “diligence against COVID-19 remains an expression of political identity” for progressives, whatever that means. Massachusetts is prominent in Green’s article. There’s a photo of teachers protesting against a school reopening plan in front of the State House. She mentions Brookline’s ongoing mandate and says Somerville officials who delayed getting kids back in classrooms were engaged in what she calls “hygiene theater.”
It’s a catchy phrase — and just as hollow as Berman asking, “Why aren’t liberals following the science?” That’s intended to equate the vaccinated and masked with anti-maskers who flaunted protocols or yelped about the “tyranny” of mask mandates as hundreds of thousands died and others suffered as COVID long-haulers.
Those of us who continue to wear masks outdoors are endangering no one, nor are we violating any law. But we are following the science.
CDC officials say “a growing body of evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infection and potentially less likely to transmit [coronavirus] to others,” but “further investigation is ongoing.” We also know there have been rare cases of “breakthrough infections” in fully vaccinated people. There are also ongoing studies about how the vaccines fare against multiple variants.
Our guard remains up because the pandemic isn’t in our rear view. By the end of 2020, Indian officials claimed they had defeated the virus and returned to life as usual. Now, India is setting grim daily records for infections and deaths, as the country runs low on oxygen for the living and wood to cremate the dead.
My own mask caution is also informed by sorrow. As a Black woman, I have seen my community devastated by the pandemic. Because of the racial inequities baked into this nation and its institutions, Black people have suffered disproportionately higher rates of infection, hospitalization, and death than white people. And more because of access than hesitancy, they are now getting vaccinated at a significantly slower pace.
About 33 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated. After early issues with more demand than supply, now the opposite is true. COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are dropping, but so are vaccination rates. Dr. Anthony Fauci says he has stopped referring to herd immunity “in the classic sense. I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”
That’s where the focus should be: on getting more people vaccinated. For anyone who has tossed their masks in a drawer, those of us who continue to wear them are a tangible reminder of what they don’t want to admit — that the pandemic still lurks among us.
When CNN’s Berman asked Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the CDC director, “Why not just say, if you are vaccinated, you can do almost anything,” she responded, “I think we have to be humble with this virus.”
More than once, COVID-19 has humbled us. Perhaps we are nearing an end to this pandemic, but if we fail to remain vigilant, it may humble us again.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this column had outdated information on the number of deaths of Black people from COVID-19. The data has been updated.