Is the disappearance of masks a sign of our Covid fatigue?
Now that avoiding Covid-19 has become a matter of personal responsibility, the placing – or not – of the humble mask reveals a sign of the times. Experts say it’s vital to get back into the habit. reports Kelly Dennett.
At the end of the summer, more and more diners were entering Apero without their masks.
The co-owner of the small bistro on Karangahape Rd, Ismo ‘Mo’ Koski, had felt suffocated by the heat.
“And I think one day I started wearing it around my chin, and I was putting it on when I was approaching tables, and then there was a shift where it didn’t last, and no one said anything. I was kind of ready for the pushback and there was none.
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“It’s not a protest, it’s not a set position, it’s fairer…I don’t know if it’s relaxed people, but people can come here and feel normal for a few hours instead. to get out into the big bad Covid world of wearing a mask.
“Dining out is so facial – it’s expressions and engagement. I really found the mask suffocating a lot of that. In a larger scheme, people might say I’m selfish, but you know , self-regulation is the best thing, I think.
This week, as the Prime Minister apologized for taking a large group photo without a mask, the Department of Health changed its mind, reversing an earlier decision to drop school mandates. Now he’s telling them they need to enforce a mask-wearing policy for students in grades 4 and up. The move has been welcomed by experts, as overseas – particularly in Australia – officials are pleading with people to reinstate their mask-wearing.
Mandatory masking for restaurant customers was dropped when the country turned orange, but remains a rule in supermarkets, shops and public transport. Nonetheless, Retail NZ estimates around two-thirds of its customers are mask-free – its chief executive says usage is so lax the mandate might as well be scrapped.
But epidemiologist Michael Baker says it’s not too late for the “Covid weary” to readapt their behaviors now, and would like to see a national mask strategy, stressing the importance of masking in crowded, confined or at risk of close contact.
Comparing not wearing a mask to drinking and driving, Baker says, “The number of tools available is extremely limited and masks are really the main tool we have right now. We’re getting closer, I think, to most people who can or want to have their boosters, so if you want to stop the transmission, really turn the tap down, masks are everything. Whether people feel tired or not, we need to use all the tools at our disposal.
“It’s about having a single goal…to understand that masks work and actually it’s not that hard to find a mask that you’re comfortable with. If we can tilt that much institutions as possible as having masks as the norm, this will help us become a mask-using society, at least to get through the worst of the pandemic.
Now that digitization is gone and vaccination status is invisible, a mask is that final symbol of who has or hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic life.
Whereas at the start of the pandemic anti-maskers cited freedom, discomfort or concerns about effectiveness, now many are saying they’ve had Covid and are no longer afraid, or are simply ready to move on.
Others say mixed messaging has contributed to apathy. But even so, while not quite the final taboo, admitting that mask-wearing is relaxed is daunting. A professional woman did not want to be named as she admitted she only wore masks in supermarkets and in malls only about half the time. She didn’t think she was the only one in this situation.
“All ordering in a cafe with a mask on but sitting down as a guest without a mask just didn’t make sense. I recently visited another city in the North Island and no one was wearing a mask – even inside retail stores, which gave me the impression that Aucklanders, in particular, are simply played for fools.
“I appreciate that the masks are designed to protect vulnerable people and I feel a little guilty for that. But I think Kiwis are just tired of the mandates and perceived control by our government, becoming much more relaxed/nonchalant about using the mask. I’m one of them.”
Although a spokesperson explained that Prime Minister Ardern had come unmasked for a photo, psychologist and Finding Calm author Dr Sarb Johal later tweeted: “It’s curious that we want to give photos a special privilege, isn’t it? It’s like all bets are off if a photo is taken. He surmised there was a “reality bending going on here, like we could, for a few seconds, pretend there’s no pandemic.”
In a blog post, Johal wrote that cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias fuel mask apathy; that wearing a mask had become performative, or a sign of respect: a social signal rather than a belief that they were working.
“The discourse has shifted more to that of ‘freedom and personal responsibility’ rather than ‘protection and interest of the community,'” he wrote. “It’s really unfortunate and it’s more about politics than anything. With new variants able to evade vaccine-mediated immunity more than before, our layered protective coat has more holes than previously thought.
In Hamilton, Gary Farrow’s daughter-in-law berates bus passengers without masks.
“When we pass one, she points her finger at the bus, killing everyone. She is literally more aware that wearing a mask is important than some adults. And she is six years old.
The Hamilton broadcaster’s daughter-in-law’s young life has been almost half-lived during the Covid-19 pandemic. Farrow and his wife Wendy are working hard to balance vigilance without scare tactics, but the family has become stricter after Wendy’s battle with Covid-19 “stunned her for 12”.
Although “no one really knows for sure”, Farrow believes Wendy contracted it following momentary contact with someone without a mask while picking up her daughter from school – one of many places where the family continues to wear masks. Farrow pretty much wears one all day, especially for work, but, noticing the Prime Minister’s mask, he understands.
“I think a lot of us tend to drop our masks in certain situations, when we want to convey the happiness of seeing someone, or we want to evoke some kind of emotion or intonation in what we say. And I do that. Of course, when I’m inside and need to eat or drink, I also remove the mask, which seems a bit counterproductive, doesn’t it? »
That said, he remembers the disbelief of looking at a smelly customer after he was recently asked to wear a mask in a retail store.
“He kept coming up against all levels of management while he was there, and the police had to be called,” says Farrow.
But the side eye of someone ogling to see if you have a mask also works in reverse. A recent trip to Sydney and Melbourne was uncomfortable for Krishna Botica, who realized she was the only one wearing a mask.
“We absolutely stood out,” she says. “That’s when my geography theory disappeared.”
His theory is that urban centers near high numbers of cases, or MIQ facilities, and a more diverse population, will have more mask wearers. She sees this playing out at her two busy Britomart restaurants, Cafe Hanoi and Ghost Street, where customers arrive wearing masks despite the dropping of mandates for restaurant patrons.
“This begs the question, why [are Kiwis more compliant than Australians]? Are we such a small nation that we know everyone who needs protection? Or are we a nation that just feels a bit more fragile? Australians seem to feel invulnerable to economic shocks.
She thinks guests were particularly proactive after the government last week asked people to mask up, making masks available for free.
This week, she saw guests “correct themselves seeing me wearing a mask, and they apologize. Whereas three weeks before that, they were like ‘are we still wearing masks? What’s going on? Out of sight, out of mind. With the numbers going down, people are saying, ‘OK, let’s move on a bit.’ »