Rewind one year, and the ethics of mask wearing was distinctly black and white. Back then, it was perfectly justifiable to lambaste someone for not wearing a mask within an indoor public space. In fact, it was almost a civic responsibility. For example, take the Uber driver who arrived at a pickup, mask dangling beneath the chin and air teeming with their own respiratory fingerprint. Or the person in the Dunkin’ Donuts line sans mask and without so much as an effort to stretch their shirt to cover their nose and mouth. And what about the guy running maskless on the treadmill in the small gym in your apartment building’s basement? If they received a bit of a verbal shakedown, they deserved it!
However, now that we’ve made such enormous progress in our fight against the virus, the ethical lines have blurred. It feels less clear how to respond to those who have chosen to prematurely unmask in certain essential spaces — buses, airplanes, grocery stores, pharmacies, public transit, etc.
Yes, it’s true that in the United States, over 30% of the population has been vaccinated. And we may be knocking on the door of herd immunity — depending on which epidemiologist you talk to. Dr. Anthony Fauci has even opined on the airwaves that not wearing a mask outdoors if you’re vaccinated carries a “minuscule” risk to contract or transmit the virus.
But that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods quite yet — especially indoors. There are still variants to contend with; the potential waning efficacy of the vaccines after several months and outbreaks in other parts of the world, which could easily re-infect our shores.
So then how should we respond when we encounter a person in an elevator who makes no effort to cover their face when we step in and share the same oxygen? Can we still undress them with a self-righteous tirade? Or maybe now the proper etiquette requires a more muted gesture — such as a polite hand gesture suggesting that they cover their face? And then what if you hear a common defense: “I’ve already been vaccinated”? It doesn’t feel quite right anymore to give a lecture on transmissibility or utilitarianism.
I’m a practicing physician, and I must admit that my own level of vigilance, post-vaccination has begun to trail off. On a recent trip to Florida, there were a few occasions on which I forgot to replace my mask until I was a few steps back inside the hotel lobby. While I’m glad I was not berated by the hotel staff, I wouldn’t have minded if I was issued a gentle reminder.
So, the question remains: How do we keep our collective guard up — by keeping our masks on, indoors at least — for the time being? How do we stay motivated now that our own personal risk has been mitigated by the vaccine, especially within the context of essential spaces including elevators and grocery stores?
I would submit to you that your willingness to remain masked in confined public spaces is a litmus test of your respect for fellow human beings. It’s a barometer of your own self-absorption. It may even represent our species’ collective potential for altruism.
When I see a car full of 20-somethings with their masks properly secured above their noses, I feel a twinge of encouragement. I even extrapolate that these are probably “good people.” By contrast, an adult standing unmasked inside a Starbucks with absolutely no hint of shame triggers a knee-jerk reaction that he or she is likely self-absorbed and possesses a related panoply of negative traits.
Hopefully, most of us will continue to fall on the right side of the ledger, while we wait for the public health authorities to issue new guidance with regard to unmasking indoors.
Dr. Eric Dessner is an ophthalmologist. He can be reached at email@example.com.