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Masks are now sporadically seen in the United States.
Science & Health

Masks are now sporadically seen in the United States.

The scene: A crowded shopping center in the weeks before Christmas. Or a warehouse store. Or maybe a packed airport terminal or a commuter train station or another place where large groups gather.

There are many individuals present, but upon observation, it is evident that face masks are mostly missing in today’s society.

While there may still be a few exceptions, it’s nothing compared to the state of affairs during the first winter holidays of the COVID pandemic three years ago. It was a time of intense conflict, blame, and disdain from both sides of the argument surrounding masks in America.

As the year 2023 comes to a close, the anticipation of holiday festivities and large gatherings brings about a higher likelihood of unintentional sharing of air. Despite the lingering effects of COVID, mask-wearing has become less prevalent throughout the country. The idea of a widespread mask mandate seems like a distant memory, much like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

However, let’s consider it from a different perspective – nowadays, wearing masks has become a norm in America. Before the pandemic, masks were typically associated with Halloween or costume events, but now it has become a persistent habit that remains even though many people may not wear them regularly.

Brooke Tully, a strategist specializing in behavioral change, finds that aspect of the pandemic to be intriguing.

According to her, services such as food delivery have been around before COVID and were gradually becoming popular. However, wearing masks in the U.S. was not a common practice prior to COVID. It was a completely new behavior introduced during the pandemic, creating new norms.

The current state of affairs is characterized by its situational nature.

The situation often varies, such as the recent choice made by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospital system to require masks again at its locations beginning on December 20 due to a rise in respiratory infections. Sally Kiser, a 60-year-old from Mooresville, North Carolina who runs a home health care business, is affected by this decision.

“I never know,” she says, “so I always have one with me.”

She may not always choose to wear it, depending on the situation, but she will if she believes it is necessary. According to her, it’s a new way of thinking for our modern world.

Store clerks and shoppers wear masks at Brooklyn's Park Slope Co-Op grocery store, Dec. 7, 2023, in New York.

On December 7, 2023, in New York, employees and customers at Park Slope Co-Op grocery store in Brooklyn are seen wearing masks.

Not too long ago, the fear of contracting COVID-19 caused a surge in demand for masks. This led to terms like “N95” becoming familiar to us, along with ideas like mandatory mask-wearing. However, there was also strong backlash from those who believed it was an overreach of government authority.

After the mandates were lifted, people began to remove their masks and the need for them decreased. The demand decreased significantly, resulting in Project N95, a nonprofit created to assist individuals in finding reliable masks during the pandemic, announcing that they would cease sales on Monday due to lack of interest.

The executive director of the organization, Anne Miller, admits that she initially believed that wearing masks would be common, not uncommon.

She mentioned that she expected the new normal to resemble what is seen in other cultures and regions of the world, where individuals wear masks as a precautionary measure for the well-being of others.

According to Markus Kemmelmeier, a sociology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, norms do not function in that manner, whether it pertains to public safety or any other aspect.

In 2020, Kemmelmeier conducted a research on mask-wearing across the country, which revealed that the use of masks and resistance to mandates differed by region, influenced by factors such as pre-existing cultural divisions and political leaning.

A prime example of the adoption or rejection of practices, particularly those mandated in specific societal sectors, is the response to the implementation of seat belts and associated laws over 40 years ago.

According to Kemmelmeier, there was initially a lot of opposition to the implementation of these rules due to their practicality and impact. Many people argued that their personal freedoms were being limited and that they should not be told what to do.

Determining the equilibrium

In New York City’s Brooklyn borough, members of the Park Slope Co-op recently decided there was a need at the longstanding, membership-required grocery. Last month, the co-op instituted mask-required Wednesdays and Thursdays; the other five days continue to have no requirement.

According to co-op general manager Joe Holtz, the individuals who suggested it were not primarily concerned with COVID rates. Their focus was on immune-compromised individuals, a group that has always been present but gained attention during the pandemic.

Supporters of the mask mandate at the cooperative stressed the vulnerability of individuals with weakened immune systems to respiratory illnesses such as colds and the flu. According to Holtz, implementing a designated time period for mandatory mask wearing can help protect them.

According to Holtz, the choice of days fell on the store’s administrators, who deliberately chose two of the least busy days instead of the popular weekend days. This decision was based on the fact that mask mandates elicit varying reactions from individuals.

According to him, management aims to minimize any potential negative financial consequences of the decision that was made.

The shoppers who were there on a Thursday didn’t appear to be bothered.

Aron Halberstam, aged 77, states that he typically does not wear a mask frequently anymore, but he did not mind the mandate. On days when a mask is mandated, he complies, even though he may not wear one otherwise. This approach represents the current situation in many areas of the country, more than three years after masks became a regular topic and part of daily routines.

According to Halberstam, he simply follows through with any request to do something without hesitation. He has no objections to completing tasks.

According to Kemmelmeier, the culture has changed regardless of the level of resistance. Even in crowded stores or during travel, people continue to wear masks. They do so by personal choice rather than government mandate. Additionally, new motives for mask-wearing can arise, such as using them to cope with poor air quality caused by wildfires during the summer.

According to him, it will always find a suitable place and as long as there are demands, it will continue to exist.