The end of Washington’s mandate to wear masks must not be confused for a mandate to go barefaced.
Although many people will undoubtedly enjoy the opportunity Saturday to legally walk into some stores, theaters and gyms without masking up, others will dip into their N95 stockpiles for a while longer. Certain places will keep up strong health requirements, and many people will as well. In this unsteady moment, the masked and unmasked will need to tolerate each other’s company with civility and social grace.
No switch has flipped that ends the risks COVID-19 poses, particularly among vulnerable populations. The state-generated map of county-by-county risk levels, guided by infection rates and hospital statistics, presents a crazy-quilt assemblage.
As workers return to offices, commuters will resume flowing into King County, now colored a low-risk green, from high-risk red Pierce County and the rest of the region. Absent the state requirement, every person is on their own to calculate their need for self-protection — and for whether they need to protect others during their travels.
As a letter writer suggested Feb. 4, some will want to see unmasked faces everywhere to reassert “normalcy” after two hard years: “When you wear a mask outside, by yourself, with nobody around, you are unnecessarily taking away that sense of normalcy.”
It’s fine to want society to be past masking up, but recognize that others won’t be there when Saturday arrives. This can stem from legitimate medical concerns. For people who are immune-compromised or have family members who cannot be vaccinated, keeping a mask on is sensible. Spring pollen will soon muddle the picture even more by adding to congestion and sneezes that are difficult to tell between allergies and respiratory contagion.
People keeping up safeguards will have to make their own compromises. For some, comfort with this transition can be found in learning more about which masks can be reasonably trusted in a crowded, partly-masked store. As Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center clinical research professor of vaccines and infectious diseases Dr. Joshua Schiffer said, the region is entering a “natural experiment” about whether ending the mask mandate will affect community spread. Self-determination just became a larger factor in the experiment.
Schiffer said he’ll continue wearing his mask, which is a well-informed decision that deserves respect. The end of the state mandate gives every resident and visitor the freedom to make a similar assessment of personal risk and act accordingly in public spaces. That situation should be accepted without confrontation. The workplaces and public spaces that continue to require masks and vaccinations as conditions of entry should have their policies respected for the same reasons.
This transition toward “normalcy” is an awkward step, but a necessary one. Polite toleration of others’ choices will go a long way toward making it comfortable, too.