A district judge struck down a mask mandate on public transit like airplanes, trains, and buses. The ruling may seem reactionary, but it still left it up for individual agencies to make their own calls about masking, instead of the CDC making it for them. Amtrak is no longer requiring masks as a result.
In contrast, Philadelphia, the only major city to do so so far, returned its mask mandate after the city entered level two of its four-tiered covid response system. Philadelphia didn’t take any chances on the public will to mask and created a mandate. I appreciate the boldness and rationality of Philly’s leadership. More major cities should follow suit.
The question for us as individuals is if we’ll follow a hard-to-enforce mandate or not. The Senate voted to repeal the mask mandate that the judge struck down above, in a bipartisan fashion, 57-40. It seems like the American tolerance for masking is waning, and honestly, it was never that popular. From the outside, many people in the country resisted masking, so it’s not surprising that even well-meaning people, who quarantined, masked, and socially distanced in 2020 and 2021 are over doing it now.
The U.S.’s individualistic ethic makes a communal project like fighting a pandemic challenging. Our short attention span and inability to make cultural changes make something like masking for two years challenging, or even adopting seasonal masking unlikely. The powers that be, the state and the market, are using their force to bring back “normalcy” as opposed to changing how we care for each other. Let me make it clear: Not wearing masks isn’t going back to normal. We should normalize seasonal mask-wearing. Going back to 2019 behavior isn’t progress, it’s electing to be ignorant.
The truth is that many of us are vaccinated, and eligible to be vaccinated. Vaccination does make covid less severe and less deadly. Hospitalizations are down. So why bother masking at all? For one thing, there are still vulnerable people among us who would benefit from less community spread. There are immunocompromised people who can’t be vaccinated. And vaccination isn’t foolproof. And because of the country’s low vaccination percentage, 500 people are still dying daily from the virus.
Some people are saying that vaccinations turn covid-19 into something closer to the common cold or influenza, but even if that’s the case, people still die of the flu and masking helps prevent the flu too!
Additionally, even if vaccines were to eliminate the need for masking (they don’t, especially with how transmissible omicron and its variant BA2 are), there’s hardly the political or societal will for vaccine mandates. So, what should we do when it comes to masking?
I think the question must be answered by the most vulnerable. So rather than center the experience of the powerful, or the temporarily able-bodied, we need to listen to disabled folks. We’re in the middle of a mass disabling pandemic. Long-covid changes people’s lives forever. We need to realize that though many people may end up with mild symptoms, we don’t know the disease’s long term consequences, or also how dangerous it is for our loved ones. When we center the most vulnerable, what we may see as an inconvenience, becomes a way to include and love everyone well.
Christians in particular should adopt this selfless, humble approach. The Bible offers a fundamental conviction to care for the lowly. Jesus says what you do for the list of these brothers and sisters, you do to him (Matthew 25:40). He says if we cause one of them to stumble, it would be better if a millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 18:6). Paul reserves his harshest words for those who exclude the lowly, the weak, the disenfranchised, and says we should uplift the lowly in order to keep the body united (1 Corinthians 12). God is calling us to consider the most vulnerable and change how we act accordingly.
And there is no better chance to do that for us than it is to keep seasonally masking and masking in certain settings. We aren’t asking people to quarantine or isolate or even distance again. Just masking in public settings where the vulnerable are most affected. Mask mandates don’t need to become the norm, if we, as a society, learn that masking is good, effective, and appropriate in certain seasons.
We must remove the stigma from wearing masks and normalize their use. Yes, there is another strain of covid-19 that is storming the U.S. But there may be more, they may become fiercer, and who knows what else awaits us? What we’ve learned as a society over the last two years shouldn’t be discarded. We can be safer now with the knowledge we learned. The pandemic’s lessons about masking, distancing, isolating, quarantining were not inconvenient temporary realities but rather a window into a new way to live. We can’t go back. Let’s move forward with what we’ve got.