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Meet the hard-core maskers who never leave home without an N95

“I believe the science,” said Lew Zackin, a retired finance executive from Newton who says he’s getting mixed messages. “But I don’t want to be the 1 percent they’re wrong about.”David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

If it wasn’t for Kevin Garnett, there’s no chance Tom Callahan would have been there.

Wary of sitting in a crowded arena in the midst of the Omicron surge, he had declined his brother’s invitations to a Celtics game this winter. But last weekend, with Garnett’s jersey retirement ceremony on the schedule and COVID on the decline, Callahan strapped on a high-quality KN95 mask and headed to the TD Garden.

When he got there, he found himself in a tiny minority. Only about 1 percent of fans, he estimated, wore masks in the jam-packed stands.

Callahan, 62, of Milton, is part of a shrinking number of residents who plan to keep wearing face coverings in public indefinitely, even as mask mandates have been rescinded. They cite a variety of reasons: underlying health conditions, fear of “long COVID,” a desire to look out for others, or simply because they find masks so unobtrusive that they feel no need to take them off.

Especially now. Callahan, who is healthy but wants to avoid infection as a matter of caution, has recently been watching case numbers rise in Europe as a new Omicron subvariant spreads. In the United Kingdom, for example, the seven-day average of new reported cases has more than doubled in recent weeks, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker. (In Massachusetts on Wednesday, the seven-day average reached its lowest level since last July.)

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“It just seems like we are always reacting,” Callahan said, “instead of putting things in place that could prevent the next wave.”

During the first two years of the pandemic, Callahan and fellow maskers found themselves in the middle of the pack: throughout much of Greater Boston, mask use seemed ubiquitous. But now they increasingly find themselves carrying out a kind of rearguard action, continuing to take precautions while many of their peers seem to be moving on.

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For Lew Zackin, 74, removing his mask is just not worth the risk. He is vaccinated and boosted and knows that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the official recommendation is that he can forgo a mask. But none of that is foolproof.

“I believe the science,” said Zackin, a retired finance executive from Newton. “But I don’t want to be the 1 percent they’re wrong about.”

He’s also getting mixed messages. Even as some Massachusetts cities lifted their mask mandate for most indoor public spaces this month, the MBTA continues to require masks on public transportation. “That tells me they’re not 100 percent positive yet,” Zackin said.

Until there’s more clarity, he will keep wearing a mask — even if he’s doing so alone. Last weekend, Zackin said, he was the only masked customer at a Newton McDonald’s, a distinct change from his previous visit, a few months earlier, when everyone was. He would prefer that others around him kept masking.

“But it’s OK,” he said. “Even if they don’t, I have mine.”

Lisa Seibert, 67, of Dedham started wearing masks early in the pandemic, before public health authorities officially recommended doing so — and has kept one on ever since. Her main concern then, as now, is her underlying health conditions, diabetes and a history of heart disease, that heighten the dangers of COVID-19.

“They started talking about comorbid conditions,” Seibert said, “and I thought, I have that. . . . Why wouldn’t I wear a mask? It hurts nobody and quite possibly does me a world of good.”

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A close watcher of case numbers and hospitalization rates, Seibert’s not quite ready to let down her guard. “The seven-day and 14-day trend has dropped like a stone recently,” she said. “But it has also gone up with variants in the past.”

Public health experts are divided on whether mask use in public spaces should be mandated for all.

Julia Raifman, a Boston University professor whose research focuses on population health and health disparities, says that reversing mask mandates now represents a failure of political leadership.

The CDC’s current policy — which has relaxed mask guidelines for most Americans — “is a moral choice to allow high levels of infection, hospitalization, long COVID, and death,” she said.

But Shira Doron, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center, makes a distinction between individual mask usage and population-wide policies.

“Masks work, obviously,” she said. “I get up close and personal with patients who are COVID-positive. I wear an N95 and I’ve never had COVID.”

But at this stage of the pandemic, she doesn’t believe one-size-fits-all solutions make sense, and she worries about unintended consequences.

“Are we deepening the rift in society, when we ask everybody to do something that really not everybody needs to be doing?” she said.

Masking, she said, should come down to a personal assessment of risk and risk tolerance for individuals.

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Marissa Conrad, a writer who penned an op-ed for the Globe last year about the psychology of habits during the pandemic, sees other considerations at play, beyond the purely epidemiological.

“The longer you follow a routine, the more it becomes part of your identity,” Conrad said. “That’s a piece of the puzzle for some people who are continuing to wear masks.”

The mask becomes a symbol of values, she said. “‘I’m someone who is pro–public health,’” she said, describing what a mask can symbolize. “How do you know when to let that go?”

Guy Mendilow, 44, a performance artist from Roxbury, said that “respect” is exactly why he will continue to wear a mask indefinitely.

“This is a form of courtesy,” he said. “In more collectivist countries, mask usage has been a norm for quite some time with no connection to COVID.”

Still, others see ditching masks as the way to foster a sense of community.

“I feel it would be unhealthy mentally for me to continue to view myself and others as potential deadly threats,” said Emily Umland, director of the Charles River Ballet Academy in Needham, which dropped its mask mandate last week. With the Omicron wave subsiding, she is more focused on the upsides of life without masks, she said: “It is so nice to smile at other people again!”