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Rules are easing around masks, but the pollen season has other ideas

“I am not removing my mask until this horrendous pollen season is over.”

Pollen covers the rear window of an SUV parked in a Pembroke driveway, as tree pollen has blanketed the area.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

After many long months, people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer have to wear masks in most settings, a sure sign that a semblance of normal life should return this summer.

But for Mary Herbert and others, ditching the masks when outside won’t be happening quite yet. Another airborne foe, one with an unfortunate sense of timing, has arrived: buckets of powdery pollen, blanketing the Boston area in a yellow haze. And it’s bad.

“The pollen is everywhere. It’s on the streets, and on cars, and in the air,” said Herbert, a 25-year-old who lives in Milton and works for her family’s foodservice equipment company. “I don’t want to wear the mask anymore; it is hot, I don’t like wearing it — especially in the warmer weather, and it would be nice to feel free. But it’s only so fun being outside when you feel like you can’t breathe normally.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that those protected against the coronavirus could forgo face coverings for the most part, triumphant news after a year of isolation and loss.


On Monday, Governor Charlie Baker said that beginning Memorial Day weekend, the state would be lifting most mask restrictions for people who’ve been immunized.

But those who suffer from severe pollen allergies say they plan to keep their noses and mouths secured, at least for now. For them, it makes time outside more bearable and keeps symptoms like sneezing and getting watery eyes or an itchy throat at bay, something they learned last spring when mask mandates took hold.

“I found that masks really help,” said Pratik Mahajan, 25, a software engineer from Somerville. “I might remove it in places in which pollen doesn’t affect me, but outside I think I’ll mostly keep it on. It makes it less severe.”


According to Tufts Medical Center, tree pollen is typically in the air from March to June, while grass pollen levels rise in June and into the summer.

NBC10 meteorologist Matt Noyes said this week that the pollen count was soaring, with the arrival of summer-like conditions — temperatures reached into the 80s — and no significant rain in sight to wash it away.

“The pollen count is not going to get any better,” he said. “Give it a couple of weeks, it should loosen up as we go through June.”

Until then, some residents who are fully vaccinated plan on keeping masks close at hand, lest they inhale an army of tiny allergens that will send their body into a tailspin.

“My vaccination kicked in yesterday, so I walked around the block today without wearing a mask for the first time in over a year, and it felt freeing,” one person tweeted Tuesday. “Until I took a deep breath of fresh air that sent pollen right to the back of my throat. I might put that mask back on.”

People walk through the Public Garden. Some people are still wearing masks to help with the heavy pollen season this year. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

For Sadhak Sengupta, a Sharon resident who works for a biotech company, there’s no question that his mask-wearing habits will extend past May 29, when the state officially rescinds its order. His allergies are particularly bad this year, he said.

“I am not removing my mask until this horrendous pollen season is over,” he tweeted this week.


In the suburbs, there are trees everywhere, he said. If he steps outside for a run, he’ll have to bring his mask with him, even though the state no longer requires it. It’s a cruel “twist of fate,” he said.

“It’s crazy out here,” Sengupta, 48, said in an interview. “I think the mask wearing definitely is helping me to cope with this horrible allergy season.”

Allston resident Daniel Kitchener, 34, said he also noticed his seasonal allergy symptoms were less intense when he had his face covered.

“Yes, it would be great breathing in fresh, non-sweaty air,” he said of the perspiration his mask causes in warmer weather. “But at the same time, it’s better for my comfort and health during pollen season.”

Dr. Caroline Sokol, an allergist at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said using masks can “absolutely” help people with severe allergies, something she heard a lot from patients last year when tree pollen was at its peak and face coverings were a constant.

“Now, as we’re taking off our masks, we’re not getting that filtration of large pollen grains,” she said. “If we can reduce inhaling them, then we can do a little bit better.”

With enough pollen in the air, even if you’re not allergic to it it can cause irritation, Sokol said. On days with high pollen counts, it’s probably beneficial for anyone to don a mask, she said.

Even Sokol plans to extend her mask-wearing at times outside. She said she left her mask at home during a recent run, after health officials said it was fine to venture outdoors without one as long as people stayed distanced. She immediately regretted it.


“I forgot how my allergies flare up,” she said. “I ended up with a stuffy nose and it took a week to get my symptoms back under control again.”

But for some, a mask can only do so much against the scourge of pollen.

Even with her face covered, Aaliyah Mastin, 25, only lasted about an hour while sitting on her porch recently. That’s when the sneezing started. She knew the post-nasal drip would soon follow.

“The first instance that I sneeze,” said Mastin, who lives in Dorchester, “it tells me that I need to go back inside.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.