UNITED STATES NEWS

Face masks have settled in as an occasional feature of the American landscape

Dec 17, 2023, 8:00 PM | Updated: 8:05 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — The scene: A crowded shopping center in the weeks before Christmas. Or a warehouse store. Or maybe a packed airport terminal or a commuter train station or another place where large groups gather.

There are people — lots of people. But look around, and it’s clear one thing is largely absent these days: face masks.

Yes, there’s the odd one here and there, but nothing like it was three years ago at the dawn of the COVID pandemic’s first winter holidays — an American moment of contentiousness, accusation and scorn on both sides of the mask debate.

As 2023 draws to an end, with promises of holiday parties and crowds and lots of inadvertent exchanges of shared air, mask-wearing is much more off than on around the country even as COVID’s long tail lingers. The days of anything approaching a widespread mask mandate would be like the Ghost of Christmas Past, a glimpse into what was.

Look at it a different way, though: These days, mask-wearing has become just another thing that simply happens in America. In a country where the mention of a mask prior to the pandemic usually meant Halloween or a costume party, it’s a new way of being that hasn’t gone away even if most people aren’t doing it regularly.

“That’s an interesting part of the pandemic,” says Brooke Tully, a strategist who works on how to change people’s behaviors.

“Home delivery of food and all of those kind of services, they existed before COVID and actually were gaining some momentum,” she says. “But something like mask-wearing in the U.S. didn’t really have an existing baseline. It was something entirely new in COVID. So it’s one of those new introductions of behaviors and norms.”

THE SITUATION NOW IS … SITUATIONAL

It tends to be situational, like the recent decision from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospital system to reinstate a mask mandate at its facilities starting Dec. 20 because it’s seeing an increase in respiratory viruses. And for people like Sally Kiser, 60, of Mooresville, North Carolina, who manages a home health care agency.

“I always carry one with me,” she says, “’cause I never know.”

She doesn’t always wear it, depending on the environment she’s in, but she will if she thinks it’s prudent. “It’s kind of like a new paradigm for the world we live in,” she says.

It wasn’t that long ago that fear over catching COVID-19 sent demand for masks into overdrive, with terms like “N95” coming into our vocabularies alongside concepts like mask mandates — and the subsequent, and vehement, backlash from those who felt it was government overreach.

Once the mandates started dropping, the masks started coming off and the demand fell. It fell so much so that Project N95, a nonprofit launched during the pandemic to help people find quality masks, announced earlier this month that it would stop sales Monday because there wasn’t enough interest.

Anne Miller, the organization’s executive director, acknowledges she thought widespread mask usage would become the rule, not the exception.

“I thought the new normal would be like we see in other cultures and other parts of the world — where people just wear a mask out of an abundance of caution for other people,” she says.

But that’s not how norms work, public safety or otherwise, says Markus Kemmelmeier, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

In 2020, Kemmelmeier authored a study about mask-wearing around the country that showed mask usage and mandate resistance varied by region based on conditions including pre-existing cultural divisions and political orientation.

He points to the outcry after the introduction of seatbelts and seatbelt laws more than four decades ago as an example of how practices, particularly those required in certain parts of society, do or don’t take hold.

“When they first were instituted with all the sense that they make and all the effectiveness, there was a lot of resistance,” Kemmelmeier says. “The argument was basically lots of complaints about individual freedoms being curtailed and so forth, and you can’t tell me what to do and so forth.”

FIGURING OUT THE BALANCE

In New York City’s Brooklyn borough, members of the Park Slope Co-op recently decided there was a need at the longstanding, membership-required grocery. Last month, the co-op instituted mask-required Wednesdays and Thursdays; the other five days continue to have no requirement.

The people who proposed it weren’t focused on COVID rates. They were thinking about immune-compromised people, a population that has always existed but came to mainstream awareness during the pandemic, says co-op general manager Joe Holtz.

Proponents of the mask push at the co-op emphasized that immunocompromised people are more at risk from other people’s respiratory ailments like colds and flu. Implementing a window of required mask usage allows them to be more protected, Holtz says.

It was up to the store’s administrators to pick the days, and they went with two of the slowest instead of the busy weekend days on purpose, Holtz says, a nod to the reality that mask requirements get different responses from people.

“From management’s point of view,” he says, “if we were going to try and if there’s going to be a negative financial impact from this decision that was made, we want to minimize it.”

Those shopping there on a recent Thursday didn’t seem fazed.

Aron Halberstam, 77, says he doesn’t usually mask much these days but wasn’t put off by the requirement. He wears a mask on the days it’s required, even if he doesn’t otherwise — a middle ground reflecting what is happening in so many parts of the country more than three years after the mask became a part of daily conversation and daily life.

“Any place which asks you to do it, I just do it,” Halberstam says. “I have no resistance to it.”

Whatever the level of resistance, says Kemmelmeier, the culture has shifted. People are still wearing masks in places like crowded stores or while traveling. They do so because they choose to for their own reasons and not because the government is requiring it. And new reasons can come up as well, like when wildfires over the summer made air quality poor and people used masks to deal with the haze and smoke.

“It always will find a niche to fit in with,” he says. “And as long as there are needs somewhere, it will survive.”

United States News

Forgiving father's killer hard for 3 children of Jordan Rasmussen...

KSL Podcasts/Amy Donaldson

A family decides to forgive a killer, but will the next generation follow?

Michael Moore killed Jordan Rasmussen and Buddy Booth in 1982. Forgiving their father's killer was hard for Rasmussen's three children.

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Neil Goldschmidt, former Oregon governor who confessed to sex with a minor in the 1970s, has died

Neil Goldschmidt, a former Oregon governor whose confession that he had sex with a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s blackened what had been a nearly sterling reputation, has died. He was 83. Goldschmidt died at his Portland home on Wednesday, The Oregonian reported, according to family members. The newspaper said the reported cause was heart […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Man charged with robbing a California bank was released from prison a day earlier, prosecutors say

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A man charged with taking three people hostage while robbing a Southern California bank last month had been released from prison a day earlier, federal prosecutors said Wednesday. The 53-year-old was indicted on robbery charges after investigators said he claimed to have a gun, jumped over the teller counter and […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Woman with gun taken into custody after standoff at FBI building in Seattle, authorities say

SEATTLE (AP) — A woman armed with a handgun was taken into custody after an hourlong standoff at the FBI building in Seattle on Wednesday, authorities said. The woman walked into a publicly accessible area where people have to wait to be buzzed into the lobby, according to FBI spokesperson Steve Bernd. She pointed the […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

South Carolina man pleads guilty in federal court to fatally shooting Virginia police officer

ABINGDON, Va. (AP) — A South Carolina man pleaded guilty to federal charges Wednesday in the shooting death of a police officer in southwest Virginia in 2021. Michael Donivan White, 36, of Cross, South Carolina, had already pleaded guilty to first-degree murder charges in state court. The federal counts include drug charges and causing the […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Democrats in Congress say federal mediators should let airline workers strike when it’s ‘necessary’

A group of 32 senators say federal mediators should speed up labor negotiations between airlines and their flight attendants and other workers, even granting them permission to go on strike “as necessary.” The lawmakers said Wednesday that airlines feel no pressure to reach contract agreements quickly because federal law makes it difficult for airline workers […]

6 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Sanderson Ford

3 new rides for 3 new road trips in Arizona

It's time for the Sanderson Ford Memorial Day sale with the Mighty Fine 69 Anniversary, as Sanderson Ford turned 69 years old in May.

...

COLLINS COMFORT MASTERS

Here are 5 things Arizona residents need to know about their HVAC system

It's warming back up in the Valley, which means it's time to think about your air conditioning system's preparedness for summer.

...

Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.

Face masks have settled in as an occasional feature of the American landscape