As soon as Michelle Garrett verified that the new federal mask guidelines were real, she turned to her 14-year-old daughter, who just became eligible for vaccination against the coronavirus this week.
“Do you still need to wear your mask to school tomorrow?” she asked.
Garrett, a writer and communications consultant in Columbus, Ohio, almost didn’t believe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s pronouncement Thursday that immunized people no longer need to wear face coverings in most situations. She said she wondered whether unvaccinated people would rip off their masks, putting her daughter at risk before she could get her shots. With no system to track whether people in public spaces have been inoculated, Garrett figured she couldn’t know for sure.
Her conundrum is common. In an intensely polarized nation, many people have little faith that their maskless fellow Americans have actually been vaccinated. That lack of trust, fueled by the ongoing politicization of the pandemic, tears at the fabric of a public-health strategy built on the assumption that other people will do the right thing.
Just more than 1 in 3 people in the United States are fully inoculated, leaving most of the population among those instructed to keep their face coverings securely over their noses when indoors. But with federal officials repeatedly rejecting the possibility of vaccine passports, enforcement relies on an honor system.
Asked Thursday how people will know if others had been vaccinated, Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said they wouldn’t.
“You’re gonna be depending on people being honest enough to say whether they are vaccinated or not,” he told CNN.
As a result, the public’s lack of confidence in each other foments “a sort of existential crisis,” said Richard Carpiano, a medical sociologist and public-health scientist at the University of California at Riverside. He said trust functions as a social glue to hold together society.
“If that’s undermined substantially in relation to a potential threat to the health of ourselves or loved ones or other people in our community,” he said, “it’s not a good situation.”
Widespread lack of faith in others isn’t new. About 70% of people told Pew Research in 2019 that they thought interpersonal confidence had declined in the past two decades. Last year, political polarization stood at its highest level in decades.
Behavior throughout the pandemic has also played a role in weakening trust. Garrett pointed to the many Americans who have rejected mask-wearing and social distancing over the past year, essentially to continue normal life.
She said she and her daughter will keep wearing masks indoors, even if their choice prompts others to assume that they haven’t gotten their shots. While Garrett said she expects to “side-eye” maskless people in indoor public spaces, she hopes they’ll be truly vaccinated.
Wyatt Hnatiw, a New York City resident who works in the technology industry, has slightly more faith in those around him. He said he assumes that most people will follow the rules and that those who don’t were probably refusing to wear a mask all along.
Hnatiw said he believes he’s sufficiently protected by his vaccination, even if some people pretend to have been immunized. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky sought to reassure vaccinated people Thursday that they’re safe, even if they don’t know others’ vaccination status.
The bigger problem for Hnatiw, he said, is what others will think of him if he doesn’t wear a mask. He knows people might correctly assume that he’s gotten his shots, but they also might think he’s simply unconcerned about others’ health. He said he’s been keeping a face covering around his wrist so that he can put it on near crowds for other people’s comfort.
“If they’re concerned themselves, then it’s a really low burden for me to put the mask on to make them feel safer,” Hnatiw said, “even if it’s not, strictly speaking, necessary.”
Hnatiw’s strategy may ease some worry for immunocompromised people and those who lack access to or eligibility for the vaccine. The honor system for masking puts people in those categories “at the mercy of others’ behavior,” said Andrea Polonijo, a medical sociologist at the University of California at Riverside.
Polonijo, who’s immunocompromised, said the fact that some people have lied about their social distancing makes her feel like the new mask guidance essentially pushes people like her back into their homes.
“At least with mask mandates in place, we knew that everyone around us was doing something to help us reduce our risk,” she said. “But now doing basic things like grocery shopping has become less safe for us.”
A four-time cancer survivor, Lisa Lindstrom said she’s unsure whether her vaccinations will protect her as well as they would for people without any health conditions. She expects there to be significant overlap between people refusing vaccination and those declining to wear masks, so she’s waiting for guidance from her oncologist before deciding how much she feels comfortable being inside with others. Lindstrom is spending most of her time at her Seattle home until then – cooking, baking and taking online courses to become a yoga teacher.
Carpiano, the public-health scientist, said that kind of decision exemplifies how the new federal guidance individualizes the risk of getting sick. He said he expects discussions about private businesses requiring proof of vaccination to pick up steam.
For now, Carpiano said the nation is likely to struggle with the consequences of a lack of interpersonal trust. Misinformation about the coronavirus has been common for the past year, he said, and people in the U.S. never came to agree on how much of a threat the pathogen really was.
“If we’re having challenges coming to a general recognition of what the threat is and what exactly is the reality,” he said, “and even questions about who knows best and who can give us the best information – even that is going to affect our ability to come together as communities to say, ‘We’ve got to deal with this problem.'”