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Some people aren't ready to stop masking, but it can be tough to go against the grain

With mask mandates gone in most places, mask-wearing is up to individual choice. And some people aren't ready to let go.
Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images
With mask mandates gone in most places, mask-wearing is up to individual choice. And some people aren't ready to let go.

Like everyone else, Devin Golden is thrilled omicron is in retreat. But he isn't ready to let down his guard. He's not even close.

"I know a lot of people have stopped wearing their masks," says Golden, 33, of Palm Bay, Fla. "I still wear my mask almost every time in public and especially indoors."

Devin Golden still wears his mask in public, despite the decline in cases, as he has done since 2020.
/ Devin Golden
Devin Golden
Devin Golden still wears his mask in public, despite the decline in cases, as he has done since 2020.

Golden doesn't describe himself as a germaphobe or a worrier in general. He doesn't have any health problems that would put him at high risk. He and his wife are fully vaccinated and boosted. They just aren't ready to take that leap.

Even though the omicron surge is fading, Golden knows the virus is still infecting more than 35,000 people, and killing more than 1,200, every day in the U.S.

"There's been stories about people who are just as healthy as me who have died from this," he says. "It's rare. But it's not like it's zero percent."

And it's not just masks. Golden's still working from home, hasn't gone back to the gym or taken a plane trip, and is still isn't really socializing much indoors.

As many people return to more pre-pandemic behaviors, this can feel like an especially perilous moment for older people, those with weak immune systems and other health problems that make the virus especially dangerous. Parents of kids too young to get vaccinated are worried too. Many feel left behind and angry.

Golden is one of the many healthy people who aren't necessarily at high risk but who nonetheless are also feeling out of sync with the world around them.

It can be tricky to adjust, experts agree, and hard to deal with the social pressure to shrug off COVID worries. Their advice is that it's OK to hold on to your own sense of what's safe and take your time coming out of the bunker.

In the moment we're in, each individual has to become kind of amateur epidemiologist, calculating how much risk they're willing to take over and over again every day in each situation.

"There's no bright line that separates safe and not safe," says Dr. Robert Wachter, who chairs the department medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

Individual risk depends on a variety of factors, including where someone lives, their age, and their health. And everyone has to decide what's worth taking a risk for, and what isn't.

"We have to be sort of forgiving of ourselves and our our neighbors," says Wachter. "Our brains have all been pickled by anxiety for two years. You can't snap your fingers and say, 'Don't worry about it all.' In part cause it's hard for the brain to make that kind of pivot and in part because the risk is low — but it's not zero, it's just low."

Coping with an invisible threat

Lynn Bufka, a researcher with the American Psychological Association, says one of the reasons the pandemic has been so hard to navigate is because the virus is invisible — and that hasn't changed.

"We still can't see the threat but now we're told it's not so bad. So it becomes really hard cognitively to reconcile that, right? We could never see the threat. We engaged in behaviors to protect ourselves from threat. And now we're being told we don't have to do those things anymore," she says. "Mentally it's a lot of information to kind of process and make sense of."

/ Michelle Forman
Michelle Forman

That's how Michelle Forman, 42, feels. "It does feel like a sort of like a weird in-between time," she says. "It does feel strange. It feels uncomfortable, you know, being in a store and seeing people without masks."

Forman, who lives in Kensington, Md., with her husband and two kids, says masks feel "a little bit like a like a security blanket." Wearing them, "feels normal, and it feels reassuring," she says.

So even though they're all fully vaccinated and healthy too, they'll keep masking around other people, to protect themselves, and others from COVID-19 and long COVID. And they still aren't eating inside restaurants or going to the gym or movies.

"I know many people, as we all probably do at this point, who have had COVID," Forman says. "And even seeing what the severe end of mild looks like is definitely not something I want for myself or my family."

Facing down peer pressure

Amie Klager, 45, who lives outside St. Paul, Minn., is also being cautious still. And it's not always easy, especially for her three kids. They passed, for example, on a neighbor's invitation to come over to watch the Super Bowl.

/ Amie Klager
Amie Klager

"In our neighborhood we've been the most paranoid," Klager says. "The kids have noted their friends saying, 'Your parents are paranoid and crazy.' And, 'Why are they making you doing this?' But the girls are still wearing their masks, even though they are getting peer pressure."

Public health experts say it's not surprising different people are reacting very differently to this phase of the pandemic.

Some people are experiencing "a sense of liberation," others feel an "even deeper endangerment," while in the middle there's "a lot of confusion," says Monica Schoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Some people are probably also feeling pressure to do things they may not feel comfortable doing, such as eating inside restaurants because friends are tired of huddling around propane heaters and fire pits, or trudging back to the office before they're ready. Some may feel like the oddball being the only one still masked up.

"You can feel alone — the only one wearing a mask in the room. And also feeling in danger at the same time," she says. "And that's a very scary place to be," Schoch-Spana says.

Schoch-Spana says people have to trust their own instincts, based on their individual risks and concerns.

"I would say: Go with your gut. At this point there is a dynamic pandemic. There are people still at risk, both in the short-term and the long-term. It isn't just about protecting yourself for a short-term health incident. There is the potential for longer-term impacts. And I think that message is getting drowned out."

Ezekial Contreras, 24, of San Diego, says he's lost touch with friends who have gone back to the gym maskless. And he's worries about showing up for job interviews wearing his mask.

"I'm worried that that's going to be a problem — like they're going to want me to take the mask off or something," he says. "But I think I would just refuse to take the mask off."

Bufka notes that it's smart to take things step by step when it comes to re-entering public life — and tune out any peer pressure you're feeling to move faster.

"Do it in a graduated way. Perhaps you expand the circle of people you spent time with and make your circle a little bit bigger. Or you go to a restaurant or some venue that are pretty familiar to you that you haven't been to in a while, but not embrace suddenly every weekend I'm going somewhere."

And if people question you, she says, "You can just say, 'I'm just figuring out what's best to me and I'm going to live my life according to what's most important to me currently.' "

A diner wears a protective mask outside a restaurant in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, the same day that the state dropped the requirement that everyone to wear face coverings indoors regardless of vaccination status.
Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images
A diner wears a protective mask outside a restaurant in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, the same day that the state dropped the requirement that everyone to wear face coverings indoors regardless of vaccination status.

Living with uncertainty, your way

Another challenge in this moment, Bufka says, is the constant changes and uncertainty. Sure, cases may be getting pretty low right now, but, "many people are waiting for what's the next curve ball," she says.

"We thought things were going OK after vaccinations and then we had delta and then that sort of went away, and then suddenly omicron was a big spike. ... So it's completely normal to be in a range of places about how comfortable do I feel with re-engaging with the world the way I did pre-pandemic."

For his part, Wachter is still masking up most of the time. But he's also resumed doing some things he did before the pandemic. That's because he knows COVID isn't going away, and this could be as safe as it gets for a long time.

"If you're waiting to, for example, eat indoors until the risk of COVID is zero, you may be waiting forever," Wachter says. "That may be where you live. It may be you're risk-averse enough to say, 'I'm OK living that way.'"

But, he adds: "If you don't want to live that way, this is a time where I think you should be dipping your toe in the water and getting use to accepting a tiny bit of risk in order to have the trade-offs of living life a little bit more normally."

Some people are just starting to dip their toes.

"We are slowly wading back into a lot of things," says Forman. "But I think taking our masks off indoors in public, aside from like a doctor's office — I think it's going to be a while."

Many people have also realized that they like some of the ways we've changed the way we live, having a lighter, less-scheduled social calendar, says Bufka. "So part of it may be also trying to decide, 'What do I want to let go of in my current way of living? What do I want to retain? What was important to me pre-pandemic that I want to go back to and embrace?"

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.