Just in from Israel for a visit and eager to stroll along the Charles, Iris Yoeli had a question for her son: Did she need to wear a mask? Nah, he told her, the outdoor mandate has been relaxed. If you can stay approximately 6 feet away from others not in your household, you generally don’t need a face covering. So when she strode out of his Cambridge home with her dog, she did so with her face uncovered.
But wait … what was going on? Wherever Yoeli looked, there were people wearing masks — joggers, parents pushing strollers, people whizzing by on bikes.
“I went here and there, maybe only two people did not wear masks,” she said, sounding like someone caught in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
It made her so uncomfortable that she hasn’t stepped outside barefaced since. “It was like I was an outsider,” she said.
After a year of smile-free interactions, fogged glasses, maskne, and general mask misery, you would have thought we would have ripped those things off our faces and never looked back.
But masks, we don’t know how to quit you.
Why not? For starters, there’s intense confusion. Can you really stay far enough away from people on the Esplanade? Then there’s the political angle — liberals fear they’ll look like anti-maskers if they shed their facial badges. And experts in human behavior say a powerful social phenomenon, beyond even Donald Trump, also is driving the behavior.
So many people are ignoring the updated state guidelines — which no longer require people to wear masks when they walk, bike, or run alone or with members of their households if they social distance — that many who want to stop wearing masks are still covering their faces because it’s easier than dealing with the glares.
Iris’s son, Erez Yoeli, a research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management whose work focuses on altruism, says that kind of social pressure is the force driving many mask wearers now.
“Until people are reasonably sure that others also know the rules have changed — that a consensus has built that masks outdoors aren’t required — they’ll want to avoid looking like jerks,” he said.
David Rand, an associate professor at MIT whose research bridges the fields of behavioral economics and psychology, said it’s a well-studied phenomenon known as a “sticky” social norm.
“A norm got established,” he said, “and now, even though the rationale behind the norm has changed, the norm has not kept up. The norms are stickier than the official rules.”
Amid the politicization of masks, liberals have made COVID protection or prevention behaviors part of their identity, he observed. “If you’ve spent the past year feeling good about yourself because you’re wearing a mask, how can you take it off?”
It’s not like wearing a mask endangers other people the way not wearing does but even so, hostility is growing toward people who are wearing masks in situations where others don’t think they need to.
Priscilla Kwok, a local public school teacher, said that as she was walking to her Lyft, which requires masks, an unmasked man yelled at her: “Wearing masks? You gotta be kidding me you [expletive] idiot.”
“It’s very difficult to know what constitutes rational behavior during a pandemic like COVID-19 so there’s a limit to how much you might judge anybody’s choices,” Nate Silver, the well-known statistician, tweeted on Tuesday.
“But I’d argue one sign of *irrationality* is if a person doesn’t change their behavior much after being vaccinated.”
For most of the year, at least in liberal Massachusetts, we’ve been the ones who shamed. It was our sport. But now one of our most educated suburbs, Brookline, is the one being mocked internationally for its initial refusal to lift the outdoor mask mandate.
“They’re gonna need Lin-Manuel Miranda specials to tell educated white liberals to trust the science,” tweeted Astead Herndon, a CNN political analyst and New York Times reporter on May 2.
Another attack appeared a couple of days later, in the form of an Atlantic articlethat ridiculed Brookline as part of a larger trend: “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown.”
Part of the problem is that even people who’ve been waiting for this moment might not be ready. It’s been a year, but it still feels too soon, especially since in the US we’re nowhere near herd immunity, and the question of the vaccines’ effectiveness against variants lingers in the public’s mind.
“To tell people overnight, ‘Don’t worry about it, take off your masks and enjoy life,’ seems confusing,” said Aisha Langford, an assistant professor at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine.
“We need clear messaging about what’s safe and what’s not,” she said, “so that people feel more comfortable restarting the activities they stopped during the pandemic.”
Masks may have turned into a “security blanket,” said Barbara Kamholz, an associate professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
“When people are in very high risk or traumatic situations they typically develop ways of coping to maximize safety,” she said. “In this case, wearing masks per CDC guidelines was one example of healthy, scientifically sound coping to maximize safety.”
But the challenge, she said, comes now, when the state has said we can take masks off in certain outdoor situations. “Because the coping behavior kept a person safe, it can be very hard to give it up.”
Despite the constant messaging — or perhaps because of it — many people are confused about the latest rule change. Some people think the new state guidance applies only to fully vaccinated people (it doesn’t).
Others don’t trust the government, particularly since at the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC instructed people NOT to wear masks unless they were sick or caring for someone who was sick and not able to wear a mask. Who’s to say they’ve got it right this time?
In Watertown, even though she knows the new rules and trusts the CDC, Purnima Thakre cannot bring herself to walk barefaced, and allows herself only the periodic indulgence of pulling down her N95 for a quick gulp of full-strength air.
“I’ve gotten used to wearing masks,” she said. “I feel like it’s normal.”