Mask Off?: CDC Issues New Guidelines Saying Vaccinated People Can Ditch Face Coverings, Twitter Skeptical

Trust Issues Over Who Isn't Really Vaccinated

Pedestrian walks in North Beach, bus in the background
A pedestrian walks near a Muni bus with a marquee reading 'Masks Required' in San Francisco on Dec. 4, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The CDC's guidance that California will adopt on June 15 said that fully vaccinated people can ditch their masks in most places. But how can you know if someone who's not wearing a mask in your vicinity really is fully vaccinated?

This conundrum — the issue of trust and deceit, especially in public — was a recurrent theme in why our audiences told us they'd keep masking after June 15. And it's natural, given how the politicization of masks and the COVID vaccine has been a dangerous, depressing hallmark of the pandemic.

But it's important to consider context in this equation, said Chin-Hong. Even if you're concerned that someone is lying about being fully vaccinated so they can go unmasked, he said that Northern California's high vaccination rates and low coronavirus case counts mean that person's chances of having COVID are much lower than they would have been months ago.

"Even if you don't trust someone," said Chin-Hong, "the chances of you getting it right now in the Bay Area are still relatively small."

Of course, if you're planning to travel to other parts of the state or the country this summer, bear in mind that it's all about the vaccination rates and COVID case count of the region you're in. In certain places, the chances that an unvaccinated person might be carrying the coronavirus are higher than they'd be in the Bay Area. If you're in one of these areas, wearing your mask again even if you're fully vaccinated might well be a decision you want to take.

Social Pressure to Mask Up

People wearing face masks walk past a health and safety guideline board and an open restaurant on Santa Monica Pier. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

If you've felt uncomfortable not wearing your mask outdoors when everyone else is — even though, yes, what you're doing aligns with the CDC outdoor guidance California adopted weeks ago — you're not alone.

Many people told us they'd felt similar social pressure to mask up again in certain places even though they were fully vaccinated. Some told us they didn't want to be mistaken for someone who doesn't believe in science, or for someone who is anti-vaccine.

But others told us that it wasn't so much that they felt pressured, but that they actively wanted to telegraph their courtesy and care for others by keeping their mask on, even when they knew they posed no COVID risk to anyone else.

We're social creatures, and these kinds of considerations are "completely legitimate," said Chin-Hong — especially because as discussed above, wearing a mask can reduce the spread of other viruses like the common cold.

"I'd love it if it becomes part of our culture," said Chin-Hong.

Privacy and Convenience

Bertha Flores usando una mascarilla que hizo con su hija.
Bertha Flores wears a mask that she made with her daughter on 24th Street in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Another reason given by our audience for appreciating mask-wearing: the privacy it afforded in public settings. As Chin-Hong said, "What better way to stay incognito than wearing a mask?"

We especially heard from several women commenters who told us that a mask reduced the amount of times random men told them to smile, or catcalled them. (Or as Reddit user scarlet_tanager told us, "Strange men leave me the hell alone when I'm masked, which has been an absolute dream.")

Other commenters told us they appreciated the sheer practicality of a mask when it came to covering their face, and how it allowed them to cut down on wearing makeup, or maintaining personal grooming they'd previously felt necessary.

A mask can also help shield your face from the Bay Area's notoriously fickle weather, offering more protection from bone-chilling fog and wind.

This one's all down to personal preferences around appearance, comfort and convenience. Although it goes without saying that no person should ever feel they have to cover up their face to avoid being the target of street harassment.

OK, So What If I Get Challenged About Wearing My Mask?

Alicia and Mai Gonzalez wear masks on 24th Street in San Francisco on April 7, 2020. Alicia's mask is from a Halloween store and Mai was given her mask by her physical therapist. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Even though many audience members told us they were planning to keep wearing their masks beyond June 15, a lot of people also told us they couldn't wait for California to adopt the CDC's latest guidance, and dispense with mask-wearing. And several of those people expressed frustration that other fully vaccinated people wouldn't also feel this way, and similarly jump at the chance to take off their masks.

Add this burgeoning contrast to the existing politicization of mask-wearing, and you might find that choosing to keep your mask on after June 15 could well provoke comments, or see you being challenged on your decision, either in private or in public.

If that happens, what should you do?

Your first impulse might be to feel defensive, but Chin-Hong advises against this approach, for how it might escalate such a conversation. He suggests you consider assuming good faith, and that these kinds of comments, as unsolicited or unwanted as they might actually be coming from a place of concern that you don't feel safe or secure with that person without your mask.

Chin-Hong's advice is to initially approach these situations with gratitude and curiosity. You might begin by thanking someone for their concern, then following up by expressing your curiosity for the reason they're making their comment: "I'm just really curious — why are you saying that?" This approach, he said, can deescalate a situation much faster than automatically assuming bad intent.

And if you don't necessarily wish to engage someone in a dialogue by asking them to explain their comment, you can also just thank them for their concern and either change the subject or leave the situation entirely.

Chin-Hong hopes we don't see more instances of people being challenged about their preferences for masks — especially because of the potential for this disproportionate impacting certain communities through prejudice. "You can imagine lots of permutations with anti-Asian violence, because Asian populations have always worn a mask even before COVID," he said. "These are things that I think we'll have to watch out for."

"And be kind to each other, at the end of the day," he said.

This story was originally published on June 9.