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Started: 2023-08-05 13:56:40

Submitted: 2023-08-05 18:48:31

Visibility: World-readable

Deciding when to take off our masks

For three years, my family wore masks every time we left the house. At the beginning, it felt like the responsible thing to do, and it gave a sense of safety when we left the house to protect us from the virus looming outside. As soon as we were vaccinated, we were suddenly confronted with a confusing mismatch of public health messages about how useful masks remained in protecting ourselves and others from the virus. There were the memes about the CDC announcing that it was now safe for vaccinated people to just walk through the gates of Mordor. There was the weird and awkward messaging that let vaccinated people go unmasked but unvaccinated people had to keep their masks on, but how was one supposed to know who was vaccinated and who was unvaccinated, when the people who had refused vaccines were the same people who had already claimed bullshit 'medical exemptions' to masking a year earlier? Next was the idea that people who wanted to go unmasked indoors in public had to certify (under no penalty whatsoever) that they were vaccinated. (I took this as explicit permission for the unvaccinated to lie in public and ruin it for the rest of us.)

Then there was the Delta Wave, and then the Omicron Wave, and then we gave up on using new Greek letters to describe new variants because suddenly all of the variants were subvariants of Omicron. None of these seemed like good times to take off masks, and most of our institutions kept requiring masks indoors anyway.

Fog at night from the deck at Nanna Court
Fog at night from the deck at Nanna Court

The tide on masks finally started turning a year ago, with school relaxing mask requirements. Anecdotally mask density started decreasing, from universal in the fall of 2020 to nearly universal in the fall of 2021 to 50% in the fall of 2023. (There were still parts of my Twitter feed screaming bloody murder that any relaxation of masking was equivalent to genocide, and I understand where they're coming from, but it's hard to continue to take them seriously when they're still saying the same thing they've been saying for the past three-plus years and we have way better immunity and treatments than we did three years ago.)

It's hard to draw a straight line, but Julian is still having some problems pronouncing certain tricky phonemes, despite being in speech therapy for two years, and it seems plausible that he would do better if he were not wearing a mask every day in school.

By 2023 it was clear that I was wearing a mask out of habit, not because I had done a careful assessment of the risks. It was still very unclear what these risks actually were; presumably greater than nothing, but at some point the hassle of masking would probably fail a rational cost-benefit analysis. No one in my household has any chronic conditions that would increase our chances of serious illness, and I don't have any good way to evaluate the risks of long COVID, aside from hoping that my long-term disability insurance is good enough to handle that bit of tail risk. ("It's not the mortality," one might say, "it's the morbidity!")

Kiesa and I talked about finding an offramp from masking on Memorial Day weekend — several hours before she tested positive for COVID-19 (so she was probably infectious while we were talking, and that very conversation contributed to my testing positive three days later).

Getting COVID ourselves (ending our three-year clean run through the pandemic) sort of clarified things, to the extent that all of our precautions were meaningless when the COVID is coming from inside the house, and our getting COVID probably contributed somewhat to our further immunity (at least as long as whatever strain we caught is representative of the strains circulating in our immediate environment). It also felt, a little bit, that we'd failed; and there was no longer a point to trying to keep the virus at bay if people were going to come bring it to us anyway.

So when we went to Hearst Castle at the beginning of July it seemed as good of a time as any to find an off-ramp — so it was the first time I had been indoors in a public space (and not about to eat or drink something) without a mask for more than three years. It actually felt less weird than I expected; I guess I spent enough time gradually unmasking in some circumstances (eating indoors in restaurants, once I was fully vaccinated) that it hadn't become a key instinct; I can still discard it when I want to. I've worn my mask sporadically since then (on BART, on an airplane, at an explicitly-masked event), but not in other circumstances where I definitely would have masked before.

Kiesa in the library at Hearst Castle
Kiesa in the library at Hearst Castle

I wish I had a working model for when to put my mask back on, ideally based on both the external risk to me (how much COVID or other airborne diseases are being transmitted in the environment? How much immunity do I have for the current COVID strain?) and on my potential risk to others (am I infectious with something where wearing a mask would help other people?). But this clarity is elusive. There was no bright line I crossed where it felt ok to go unmasked indoors in public, and there will be no bright line in the opposite direction. (I sort of miss the obvious bright line in April 2020 when suddenly it was obvious that masks were good for everyone.)

The other obvious question is what happens next week when the kids start the school year. (Calvin starts high school; Julian starts third grade. This means that Calvin is half-way to an undergrad degree, and Julian is half-way to completing grade school.) Julian was one of the few kids in his class who was still wearing a mask. I don't know for sure about Calvin, but I think the ratio was similar. We've set up an environment where the kids can decide what they want to do, so I guess I'll leave it at that and support them whatever they decide.