The New Mask Ask

In Columbus, at least, things seem to be moving back to more of a masked-up world, as businesses try to figure out what to do in view of the delta variant of COVID. You really need to pay attention to signs and notices when you go into commercial establishments.

Yesterday I went to grocery shop at the Giant Eagle in Grandview. There was a card table in front of the entrance with a sign that said that all patrons, vaccinated or not, had to wear a mask to enter the store; next to the sign was a box of those familiar white and blue masks that Giant Eagle was offering for free so customers could mask up. So I donned my mask and entered to do my shopping. It quickly became apparent that some people either hadn’t seen the sign or were ignoring it, as about half of the patrons I saw were unmasked. No one from Giant Eagle seemed to be enforcing this particular store’s “mask mandate,” either.

Then I went to another store where the sign on the door “strongly encouraged “ everyone to wear a mask in the interests of protecting everyone’s health. In deference to the proprietor’s wishes, I put my mask on again before entering. Most of the other patrons didn’t.

I’m not sure how widespread the masking requests and requirements are, although my very limited experience indicates that Columbus stores are definitely more mask-oriented than businesses in Stonington. So while I’m here, I’ll have to keep a mask at hand, just in case. And my rule will be to defer to the instructions of the business owners, who really are in a no-win situation in view of the scary stories in the media and the ever-changing CDC guidance. For many business owners, the path of least resistance will be to follow CDC instructions. Whether they will have employees tasked with the thankless job of trying to enforce the mask rules is another question.

After yesterday’s experience, I wonder if we aren’t sliding, slowly but surely, back into the masking and social distancing world, after an all-too-brief taste of the old maskless and carefree normal. I’m not looking forward to it.

The Delta Variant

The Delta Variant. It sounds like the title of a bad Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy novel, doesn’t it? And according to the news reports it is lurking out there, ready to pounce, and threatening to propel us into a mask-wearing, social distancing, stay-inside-your-house reprise of what we went through in 2020–like the situation found in Australia, where a Wall Street Journal article recently argued that the governmental COVID responses have returned the Land Down Under to its roots as a nation of prisoners.

Already we’re starting to see signs of what might lie ahead. This week the CDC and the Biden Administration reversed course on mask-wearing, saying even fully vaccinated people should wear masks indoors in places with high COVID transmission rates. Only two months ago, the CDC said fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks indoors. The CDC also recommends that everyone in grade schools–kids, teachers, staff, and visitors,–wear masks even if they are fully vaccinated. And the CDC’s abrupt reversal seems to presage additional policy shifts and concerns coming up. The CNBC article darkly warns: “The updated guidance comes ahead of the fall season, when the highly contagious delta variant is expected to cause another surge in new coronavirus cases and many large employers plan to bring workers back to the office.”

What caused the CDC to change its mind, again? The CNBC article linked above quotes CDC Director Rochelle Walensky as saying the change is based on “new science” and data showing that the delta variant behaves “uniquely differently from past strains of the virus,” suggesting that some vaccinated people “may be contagious and spread the virus to others.” But the description of the rationale sounds very contingent and conditional–and, frankly, perhaps the result of some guesswork. There seems to be healthy disagreement in the medical profession about just how dangerous the delta variant really is. And there definitely is disagreement about how to deal with COVID and kids, as a recent New York magazine article demonstrated.

Here’s the issue, as I see it: our health care experts and politicians don’t seem to realize that their credibility isn’t what it once was. They seem weirdly panicky and overly protective, and willing to reverse course and make sweeping decisions that disrupt the lives of millions on the basis of untested models and supposition, rather than hard science. They also don’t seem to take into account the cost and impact of their suggestions, whether it is the mental health impact of isolating people due to shutdowns, the health effect of breathing through masks for hours on end, or the economic effect of restrictions on activities. And their latest change also undercuts the impetus for the crucial public health initiative of encouraging COVID vaccination. Some who haven’t been vaccinated will reason that if even fully vaccinated people need to wear masks to protect the unvaccinated, what’s the point of vaccination in the first place? And if protecting the unvaccinated is the goal, how long will this latest round of mask-wearing rules last?

It’s obviously not ideal that there is growing distrust of the public health authorities and politicians, but it’s important that those people recognize that the distrust and skepticism and resistance to sweeping edicts exists, and won’t be going away. If autumn brings new calls for lockdowns to deal with the delta variant, the general level of skepticism about the need for that kind of draconian action will be heightened–and I expect that the level of acceptance and compliance among the general population will be affected, too.