Yikes: 56% say they'll still wear masks occasionally even after the pandemic is over

A shocking result given the excitement that’s building for a return to normalcy this summer. Even more surprising is that the numbers don’t divide sharply along partisan lines, as they did in the Gallup poll that John wrote about on Friday. As you’d expect, Republicans are less likely to say they’ll go on wearing masks after the pandemic. But not as less likely as you’d think.

Before I saw this, I would have guessed that Dems would split something like 33/67 on mask-wearing post-pandemic while Republicans would be hugely lopsided at 10/90 or whatever. I would have been way off.

Are masks, like Zoom, now a permanent feature of American life?

Dems are at 68/10 on wearing masks “in special circumstances” at least while Republicans stand at 43/42 — a plurality in favor! A fifth of GOPers and a third of Dems say they expect to wear masks “frequently.”

What?

There are two ways to explain this, I think. One is that much depends on the word “over” in the question being asked. When is the pandemic “over”? Is it when all states have lifted all restrictions? Is it when cases or deaths have dropped beyond a certain level nationally (or locally)? Is it when we reach a certain threshold of herd immunity? Or is it when enough people have been vaccinated that experts can safely say that we’re not going to have a “fourth wave” of spiking hospitalizations? Some spring breaker in Miami went viral on Twitter yesterday because he stood up on a car in Joker facepaint waving an American flag screaming, “F***ing COVID is over, baby!” Some Americans may agree, believing that the pandemic is now “over” in the sense that the worst is behind us — and yet those same people may recognize that more cases and deaths are yet to come this spring as the vaccination effort proceeds. Continued mask-wearing under those circumstances makes sense: You’re still at risk even though the pandemic as we knew it is “over.” Maybe some who say they’ll go on wearing masks simply mean they’ll do so for the rest of the spring and summer, until it’s not just “over” but over-over.

Another possibility is that some Americans are prepared to extend COVID protocols to other airborne infectious diseases going forward like the flu. Last fall doctors were wringing their hands about the prospect of a “twindemic” in which COVID cases would surge alongside the usual spike in flu cases. Where would they put everyone once ERs began filling up with patients sick with either illness? It turned out their fears were misplaced. The precautions people took to prevent COVID infection, wearing masks and washing their hands and keeping their distance, crushed the seasonal flu pandemic this year. The more risk-averse part of the population will take a lesson from that next year even if the threat from COVID has abated. Want a little extra protection from the flu? Just wear your mask in a crowded indoor space. And of course, the threat from COVID probably won’t have completely abated by winter 2021. It’ll be far less dire with most of the public vaccinated but it’ll still be around, possibly mutating into something slightly more threatening, and we’ll hear sporadically on the news about fluky but frightening “breakthrough” cases of people who got their shots but ended up sick anyway. Without a doubt, the Faucis of the world will still be encouraging masks this fall to limit that risk. Many people will heed their advice.

For some, I expect, it may be a simple matter of being willing to put the mask to use now that they have one on hand. Pre-COVID, if you tended towards germaphobia, you might nonetheless have held off on wearing a mask during flu season because, well, it would have looked weird. It wasn’t something that was done in America. Now that it’s been normalized and the costs of acquiring masks are sunk, those same germaphobes may feel more comfortable reverting to them this winter and possibly winter 2022. The question is how long that normalization will last. Once we’re two or three years removed from the worst of the pandemic and masks are less common in public, how many germaphobes will regain their sense that covering up isn’t just hypercautious but “weird”?

Here’s former Operation Warp Speed chief Dr. Moncef Slaoui siding with Fauci over Rand Paul on wearing masks as good practice, at least until more people have been vaccinated. In lieu of an exit question, read this WaPo piece from a few weeks ago about people who love wearing their masks, and not just for the extra safety they bring. “It has helped my social anxiety so much,” said one person. “I can just go and do my thing, and I don’t have to interact with people. It’s liberating,” said another. What a godsend for shy people!