So it finally happened. The CDC released guidelines stating that fully-vaccinated individuals may gather in groups unmasked indoors or outdoors without social distancing. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Firstly, state and local governments do not have to adopt these guidelines into law. These are, in fact, only guidelines and the despite the power the CDC has wielded over the last 14 months and counting, they do not have legislative authority. Additionally, busses, trains, and other forms of public transportation will still require masks, and of course immunocompromised individuals are recommended to continue to be cognizant of their surroundings and remain distant and in masks.
However, the reaction to this announcement has been mixed at best. There have been basically three schools of thought. The first, and probably most appropriate, is made up of those who simply remove their masks if they have been vaccinated. These are the people who have been consistently listening to public health officials. They may have ditched the masks in smaller crowds until now, but really have just been awaiting the official word so they can go back to their lives.
The second is the group that is upset with CDC for not having made this announcement sooner. They will claim, and rightfully so, that no new science has come out in the last several weeks or months to have forced the CDC’s hand. They are pointing to the fact that with the disappointing jobs report, the situation in Israel, and the rise of inflation, the Biden Administration has had a bad stretch of news of late and needed a win. They wanted to wait until July Fourth weekend to make this announcement so there could be a symmetry with Independence Day, but they could not wait that long, as they needed a positive headline to counterbalance the bad press.
There are several reasons why this is probably wrong. The Biden Administration would not risk the incredibly negative press that would come if the American people would find out that they purposely extended the necessity to mask simply due to some arbitrary symmetry. Those bad headlines are not worth it. Secondly, and more importantly, readers of this column should already know the reason the CDC has delayed this long in making the announcement. It is because the CDC is worried about those who have yet to be vaccinated pretending to have received their vaccines and the potential there will be for outbreaks because some people lie.
So, what changed? The American people have been keeping a close eye on the states and locales that have opened with no restrictions and have seen that nothing has happened there. States like Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, and Mississippi have all been fully opened with no restrictions for months at this point and, despite President Biden mocking them for their decisions, no major outbreaks have occurred. Had the CDC not come out with their new guidelines, it is probable that other states would follow suit without taking any precautions into effect. Remember, the CDC guidelines still have restrictions in some areas. Had they not done so, those restrictions would probably have gone by the wayside in many states.
But this leads us to the third group of people. These are the individuals who have been fully vaccinated for more than the two required weeks, yet are still wearing masks out of “an abundance of caution.” Unless you are one of the immunocompromised people, if you are two weeks past your second dose, you absolutely should not be wearing a mask. Wearing a mask at this point is now anti-science and anti-scientific organizations, which are unfortunately no longer the same thing.
There are generally three responses to this. There is the “But what’s the harm in wearing the mask?” crowd. The answer is that wearing a mask is extremely harmful. Obviously, masks block natural breathing paths (that’s the whole purpose of the mask to begin with). This is a major problem for individuals in manual labor professions as well as those exercising in public gyms. But even more so, the mask has now become a comfort object to some and even a symbol of oppression to others. Those who wear them even though they have been fully inoculated are sending the message out to others that the wearer is someone who needs to have this close to them to feel safe. Instead of carrying around an old blanket or a stuffed animal, they keep their mask close. The oppression comes in the form of those like MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, who claimed to “need to rewire” herself so she no longer “sees unmasked people as a threat.” The mask was not only there to protect her, but as a way of identifying her oppressor. The unmasked were the enemy, the bigot, the ones who want to kill us all. Now it will be harder to identify those people. Maddow will just have to go back to her old method of finding cars with Trump/Pence bumper magnets.
Next, there is the “I still do not feel comfortable” crowd. For this group, the mental health part of the pandemic has had a deep impact. Mental health is nothing to joke about, which is why the following message must be made extremely clearly. If you or someone you know remains unconvinced about the efficacy of the vaccines to the point that you are still unwilling to remove the mask even after the CDC has said that it is okay to do so, you may need to seek professional help to get you out of this. It is true that a small number of people who have been fully inoculated can still catch the virus. One needs to look no further than the New York Yankees coaching staff, which saw several members test positive. But the key here is that all but one of them were asymptomatic and the one who showed symptoms showed very mild symptoms. While these vaccines are 90% effective against contraction, they are at least 94% effective against hospitalizations, and close to 100% you are under 65.
Finally, there is the “What about those who lie?” crowd. The individuals who claim to have received the vaccine and did not are putting themselves at risk. If you are vaccinated, you are not likely to catch it from them and even less likely to spread it. This is obvious, as the CDC has issued their recommendations knowing this to be not only a possibility, but a high probability. Most of the population will come into contact with an individual who claims to have been vaccinated but is actually lying. And yet, we now have the guidelines from the CDC to drop the mask.
However, unlike those such as Maddow, who assumed that unmasked individuals are worthy of scorn, derision, and should be expelled from polite society, if you see a masked individual, do not look down on them for being anti-science. Do not assume they are suffering from a mental illness that causes them to hold onto the mask like a security blanket. Do not even assume that they are vaccine hesitant. The assumption we must make is that they are either too immunocompromised to have received the vaccine or that they are too immunocompromised to be able to remove the mask despite having received the vaccine. After all, had they seen you without a mask prior to last week, they would have almost exclusively assumed that you were too immunocompromised to wear a mask to begin with. It is only fair that you do not jump to the same conclusions about them.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.