A person can get used to just about anything. The past 15 months have done nothing if not prove as much. It turns out that, on a long enough timeline, strapping a cotton shield to one’s face to keep the air from killing you—and you from killing others—can become just another unremarkable element of each day. The routine for going outside merely expands to include a check for potentially life-saving wearable medical equipment along with the usual wallet, keys, and phone. Do it enough times and the act is drained of all dystopian absurdity. A tedious detail. Like picking up your pandemic puppy’s poop with your prophylacticized hand, a bizarre act at first that gradually gets absorbed into normalcy.
What’s also incredible is the phenomenon of getting unused to the strange-turned-quotidian. With New York and California fully reopening this week, and reports that COVID-19 cases are going down in highly vaccinated areas while going up in their opposite, many Americans are about to start leaving their homes without masks for the first time in a year. It’s a milestone worth celebrating, even as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc among the unvaxxed. Finally setting aside masks after all this time, however, is bound to create some complicated feelings about having had to wear them in the first place.
At least, that’s what happened to me.
When I arrived in my new home of Minneapolis last October, just before Minnesota ramped up its safety requirements by executive order, the city was stuck in the liminal space between closed and open. I would pick up takeout from a nearby restaurant and notice the seated, unmasked diners clock the light-blue bottom half of my face. They didn’t look annoyed, necessarily, but the mere presence of a mask in their midst seemed to shift the core temperature of the room by a few degrees. I tried not to betray any judgment, but having been in New York for the early pandemic peak, I felt infinitely more secure on my side of the mask. At that point, vigilance was still an act of survival. Paranoia and pessimism were just good praxis.
Despite the routine nature of it, sustained mask safety took a lot of work. Every now and then, I’d get a few steps outside of my apartment with a denuded face before rushing back in to fish out a clean mask amid the lipstick-smudged ones my wife left by the door. Once, after taking a phone call inside my apartment, I went for a walk and made it all the way to the produce section of the closest grocery store before realizing I’d forgotten to mask up. I was mortified, the weak link in the community chain. I pulled my shirt over my face-holes and hauled ass outside.
What a difference half a year makes, though.
Once pretty much all adults in Minneapolis had the ability to get vaccinated, things changed fast. The masks-off dam seemed to break little by little—barely anyone wearing them by the lake, the occasional cashier going without—and then all at once. A couple of weeks ago, fully vaxxed, I wore a mask into the theater to see my first non-drive-in movie in more than a year (A Quiet Place 2—it was fine!), but took it off once I saw that no one else was wearing one. Sure, any of the folks in the theater could potentially have been infectious, but if we’re ever going to trust the vaccine’s efficacy and reach an actual post-pandemic era, I thought, maybe it’s time to jump in with both feet. So I did.
My new frequent masklessness was so glorious, it began to feel like an obnoxious formality to actually have to wear one. The grocery store down the street, which I once ran out of with my shirt over my face, discarded its mask restrictions before my apartment building did. Suddenly, I bristled at having to don a mask just for the time it took to get down the elevator and out the lobby, or walk 10 steps through the hall to throw trash down the chute at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday. All the nearby bars and barbershops had fully opened up. Was the mask signage still in my building the result of cautious care, or just laziness? Either way, who were we kidding?
The battle against COVID-19 in America is undoubtedly moving in the right direction. By the time my apartment complex finally took down its signage last weekend, 12 states had fully vaccinated more than 50% of their residents. We’re knee-deep in the muck of a grand experiment. Young children aren’t able to get immunized yet, but the science has led governing bodies in many areas to release citizens from masks on their own recognizance. One day soon, we might look back on this moment and feel shame at our hubris, but for now, let there be relief, hope, and joy about it.
I’ve just begun to feel the absence of my once-disrupted routine for leaving the house. Keys, wallet, phone, and . . . nothing else! One less thing to have to remember. Bliss.
The transition has not been entirely frictionless, however. The other day, as I picked up coffee from Caribou, I noticed an older man in the shop react to my masklessness. As I came closer, he scrambled to hike a mask up over his face in time, fearing perhaps that he might consume a coronavirus latte.
I had become somebody else’s pandemic villain.
How strange to be on the other end of mask-safety judgment! I felt instantly defensive. What was he even doing inside a coffee shop at all, mask or not, if he was this worried at this stage of the pandemic? I quickly realized he wasn’t wrong for still being scared, though. As a matter of fact, I was wrong to be annoyed, and I needed to examine my reaction before letting it become the default when the same thing inevitably happens again. The alternative, after all, is a slow slide into Ted Cruz territory.
But catching myself feeling low-grade hostility toward one vigilant post-vaxx masker for one moment had an unexpected side effect: It made me remember all the people who have reacted like vaccinated-me throughout the entire pandemic. This involuntary reflex I now know to keep in check was the animating force behind so many people’s violent actions these past 15 months. The nerve! The homicidal confidence! How dare they feel as facially entitled as I do now, just based on their catastrophically incorrect hunch that masks were some kind of scam.
As excited as I am to embrace bare-face life until it just feels like life, period, I’m also livid that the people who could never be bothered to do their part get to luxuriate in this freedom as well. Even though we are on the same side of the mask issue now, we are not the same. Practically all of us are about to become anti-maskers; only some of us have earned it.