As COVID-19 restrictions ease and economies reopen, masks are becoming highly symbolic of our ongoing cultural and class divisions. Red states are (for the most part) acknowledging that masks have done little to “stop the spread” and are rolling back regulations. Blue states are (for the most part) doubling down (sometimes literally) on their mask mandates.
NYC is among the worst. I had a video call yesterday with a friend who was walking midday in Central Park, socially distanced in open air, under lovely blue skies with birds singing of springtime. Yet he was still wearing an N95. When I asked why, it wasn’t out of a personal fear or sense of elevated risk. He explained that it remains the cultural norm, and that people glare or angrily confront you if you’re not wearing a mask, even out in the open.
What a sharp contrast to Florida and Tennessee, the two states in which I have spent 2021 in self-imposed exile from New York. In these states, I have been free to go to the gym, attend church, visit restaurants, malls and beaches, all without an enforced mask mandate. Little of this is possible in New York right now. The irony here is that in New York state, despite having the toughest mask mandate in the US, infection rates are rising faster than anywhere else in the country, and in NYC, new cases have again risen to over eight thousand in the past week. Mask mandates don’t work. Neither science nor our experience of the past year justify the continued enforcement of mask mandates for the general public. Rather, states and their citizens are aligning with a political ideology, and using masks as a form of virtue signaling.
Beyond the cultural and political implications, mask are also becoming another unneeded symbol of class division. The affluent now find themselves able to remove their masks to eat, to drink and to play, while those who serve them must remain shrouded and veiled. Wealthy restaurant guests, best illustrated by Gov. Newsom and friends at French Laundry in Napa Valley, can conviviate maskless, but their waitstaff and sommeliers must wear them, no matter how hot or uncomfortable they become after several hours. Resort goers and families on spring break are maskless and attended by housekeepers, servers and other staff who will be fired from their jobs if they dare take theirs off.
It is absolutely a good thing that the service industries are recovering. I understand that wearing a mask is a small price to pay if jobs are once again available and people are getting back to work. However, the optics are terrible and imply a caste-system.