Beyond appearing in articles that are a bit out of touch, the off-ramp analogy itself poses a few problems. First, an “off-ramp”—or any discussion of ending a particular restriction—implies a fixed destination, one that could be located on a static map. The most commonly proposed point at which adults or kids can stop masking is simply a date, usually a few weeks after the vaccine has become approved and made available to those groups. This thinking ignores all realities on the ground in terms of infections, hospitalizations, vaccinations, and variants. It applies an individual responsibility framework that has failed consistently throughout this pandemic and ignores the safety of anyone who is unable to get vaccinated by a deadline, or who might not be protected by the vaccine for medical reasons. It ignores the fact that the situation with the virus can change: It’s no wonder that after advising that vaccinated adults not longer had to wear masks this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had to quickly reverse its position.
OK, so why not base the off-ramps on local levels of cases? This is the second issue with the framing: It treats the removal of restrictions as a final destination. Once you go barreling down the exit ramp, there is no looping back around to return to the highway, at least not without significant confusion and some yelling from the back seat. And make no mistake, getting back on the highway of restrictions is, for the foreseeable future, inevitable: Local cases in a global pandemic don’t stay low forever, especially if you remove masking. This is the case in Denmark which got rid of all restrictions in September and is now considering reimposing them. The provinces of British Columbia and Alberta got rid of their mask mandates over the summer, only to reimpose them after a rise in cases. Germany, which has only fully vaccinated 67 percent of its citizens got rid of free testing in October—only to bring free testing back after a rise in cases and hospitalizations.