When Jules Abbott visited a liquor store in Bel Air earlier this month, she was surprised to see about half the shop’s customers without face masks.
Beverage samples had even returned to the store. But Abbott kept her mask on. It just didn’t feel right to go without something that had been such an integral part of her life for the past year, she said.
“It’s kind of weird to see people without masks now,” the 25-year-old Cockeysville resident said. “I‘m probably gonna wear mine in the next month or two until it’s safer and more people are vaccinated.”
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, had urged Marylanders to “Wear the damn mask” throughout the pandemic, and he left in place the mask mandate longer than many other states. After growing accustomed to masks over the past year, taking them off after Hogan’s policy announcement this month has been an abrupt change for some customers and business owners alike — especially due to ongoing confusion over different rules in different areas.
Masks are still mandated in many places in Maryland, including in hospitals and schools and aboard public transportation. In Baltimore City, masks will remain required indoors and at outdoor event spaces, at least until 65% of adults there have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine shot, officials said. So far, the city has reached 53%.
Plenty of people are encountering quandaries similar to Abbott’s. In grocery stores, restaurants and barbershops where masks are no longer required, some fully vaccinated customers are keeping them on out of a desire to seem respectful, to protect the unvaccinated — and because old habits die hard.
Likewise, many businesses — in Baltimore City and beyond — have continued to require masks, distancing and lower capacity limits, signaling to customers and employees that they are prioritizing their health and hygiene.
Tobi Chiampou, who works at Ruth Shaw, a luxury fashion retailer at The Shops at Kenilworth in Towson, said she’s seen more people going maskless in the mall. But the store — whose employees have no way of knowing which customers are vaccinated — has continued to require masks inside.
“It’s to make people feel more comfortable,” Chiampou said. “We offer disposable masks.”
Restaurant staff are still wearing masks at Phoenix Upper Main in historic Ellicott City.
“By and large, most of our clients are considerate of others’ viewpoints, and when they see other people wearing masks they tend to put them on,” owner Mark Hemmis said.
Some experts have warned that a premature end to masking could jeopardize the health of the unvaccinated, prompting a fresh rise in cases, although evidence is strong that fully vaccinated people are less likely to catch or spread the disease.
Alexandre White, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who has studied the social impacts of infectious disease outbreaks, said it could be difficult for people to drop their defenses so soon after the pandemic’s peak, and while COVID-19 infections and deaths continue.
“Our newly learned habits, practices and deep fears and anxieties — rightly held fears and anxieties — around the severity of this pandemic will take some time to change,” White said, “and take some time to catch up perhaps even to the securities that have been afforded to us by these vaccines.”
But the politicization of mask-wearing in the United States could also be creating a reluctance to doff masks for good. Throughout the pandemic, so-called “anti-maskers” became tied to Republican politics in the popular psyche, as President Donald Trump often scorned their use.
“In the context of Maryland, not wearing a mask has been in some ways a sign of disrespect to others,” White said.
On the flip side, plenty of Marylanders are reveling in a world where masking may soon fade — a world where smiles have returned to grocery aisles, where a sea of faces in a bar is again a welcome sight. Even before the governor lifted Maryland’s indoor mask mandate, a popular beach club in Ocean City announced — and then promptly canceled — an outdoor mask burning party. For some people, it’s just time.
In downtown Bel Air, the lifted restrictions prompted patrons to flock back to establishments, including those on Main Street, last week.
Teena Trageser, who works at the Full Heart SouLutions boutique on South Main Street, said she and her colleagues were “a little nervous” with the lifting of the state’s mask mandate. Whether shoppers wear masks in the store or not, “we just want to make people feel comfortable.”
“It’s just your personal preference and what you feel comfortable with,” said Trageser, noting that she had her mask “off and on,” depending on how many people were in the store.
But in a shop in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood last Sunday, the desire to unmask escalated to the point of violence, said Rachel Cooper, the store’s director of operations.
After Katie Schisler, a staff member at Brightside Boutique, asked a customer to don her mask, the customer charged after her, yelling in her face. Security footage captured the incident.
The customer was asked to leave after she and her children allegedly began cursing at Schisler, Cooper said. The customer also threw a necklace at Schisler, Cooper said, after she was asked to put the necklace down as she left the nearly 2,000-square-foot women’s clothing and gift shop.
Cooper, too, complained that differences in the state and Baltimore City regulations have provoked confusion and frustration for customers.
Some people don’t want to wear their mask anymore, partly because they’re hearing different directives, she said.
”[The mandates] don’t really allow any time for businesses to prepare for these changes,” she said. “From a government standpoint, we’re just asking for local officials to be more consistent. There seems to be an extreme divide on a state-to-city level.”
After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans this month, advising that they didn’t need to mask in most settings, a handful of national retailers, like Walmart, Starbucks and Trader Joe’s, relaxed restrictions for vaccinated customers, relying on an honor system of sorts.
During a recent trip to a Trader Joe’s in Towson, Pam Griffin-Smith considered going without a mask.
“When I went in the door, everyone had one on, so I thought ‘OK, I’ll just wear mine,’” said Griffin-Smith, 68.
Some are choosing to don masks in an effort to protect those who can’t get vaccinated, like children under 12, or patients who may not be fully protected by the inoculation.
Last week, Jennifer Robinson, who is fully vaccinated, and her 9-year-old daughter, Rose, wore a mask in Baltimore’s Patterson Park. Robinson said she wore the mask in solidarity with her daughter, who’s not eligible to get the vaccine, and to show her that mask-wearing is still useful.
Robinson said she’s also aware of several people who have been vaccinated but still caught the virus.
“[I] want to be cautious,” Robinson said.
So-called “breakthrough infections,” while rare, have occurred, but those patients are far less likely to have severe infections or require hospitalization.
Others still are masking because they found it beneficial at preventing other ailments. Ryan Robinson, of Locust Point, said he’s continued to wear his mask, even while running outdoors.
“I want to do my part in society and not spread it,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do it because I’ve noticed the mask has [also] helped with my allergies.”
Maryland is still masking more frequently than the rest of the United States, according to a survey performed by researchers at the University of Maryland and Carnegie Mellon University.
As of Saturday, 86.7 in 100 survey respondents in Maryland said they had worn a mask most or all of the time over the past week. That’s compared with 78.4 in 100 respondents across the United States. But Maryland’s figure has declined of late. At the beginning of this month, it was 94.5 out of 100. It could be a sign that loosened restrictions are starting to change behavior, if slowly.
Alan Shecter, 84, said he’s starting to feel more at ease, too. His senior living facility, Edenwald in Towson, has even lifted the requirement that residents wear masks indoors.
How does it feel?
“Relief,” he said. “In capital letters, underscored, in bold.”
Baltimore Sun Media reporters David Anderson, Matt Button, Colin Campbell and Ana Faguy contributed to this article.