Once upon a time, in March 2020, I taped a paper mask to the inside of my front door as a public health and safety reminder. Because I tend to leave the house without at least one of the essentials (keys, cell phone, leash, poop bags for Toby, the terrier mix), I wrote “Mask?” on the mask.
Within weeks, my sign was no more notable than the peephole above it. But the mask taped to my door isn’t the only visual cue reminding me to mask up. There is a basket brimming over with them on a table right next to the door: masks of cloth in many colors and patterns, and two kinds of disposable non-surgical paper masks.
Last November, Gov. Charlie Baker first announced Massachusetts’ outdoor mask requirement and since then, not a week has gone by since when I’ve walked down the block only to realize the lower half of my face is naked. Sometimes I got lucky and found a mask in one of my pockets. If I was heading to the car, there was usually at least one ragged sour-smelling mask in the glove compartment.
We are now nearing the beginning of the end of the masked life. Or so it seems. The CDC just decreed that it’s OK for the vaccinated to go maskless when outdoors and physically distanced from those whose vax-status is unknown. Gov. Baker followed up with a decree of his own. Such great news. I’m eager to trade smiles with passers-by and have begun to plan a season of picnics. On the other hand, I’ve heard from people who declare they will wait before exposing nose and mouth to the world. Vaccine-hesitancy meet bareface-hesitancy.
All of this has me thinking about this long, strange year. How will we remember it -- la vida enmascerada?
Long ago, at the very beginning of the great masking, covering nose and mouth was a kind of emergency. At first, you couldn’t get a mask for love or money, and although I am not a crafty person, the internet supplied patterns and tutorials for making them. I had a sewing machine and some well-worn cotton dish towels with a pattern of gaily colored chickens, so I whipped up a half-dozen lopsided masks with four ragged strings that would not stay tied.
Mask purchases ensued: First, a few cotton ones I spied in a display near the supermarket checkout — small and flimsy. Then a box of 50 disposables at a pharmacy chain, some of which are probably still around somewhere. I purchased a few beautiful masks made by a Syrian refugee who had been a tailor in the old country. (I lost those almost immediately.) I ordered some from an Israeli non-profit that employs creative elders, keeping them socially engaged while earning some money. (They were handsome but ill-fitting.) I bought a few at an art museum gift shop. I found my favorite at a shoe store, and have no idea where I lost it.
The urban landscape is littered with lost and abandoned masks. Most of them are as unsightly as used Kleenex, and probably should not be touched without protective gloves. But now and then there’s a rose amid the rubbish, like the child-sized mask with rainbows I spied under some bushes.
My current mask rotation consists of some black KN95s, a few pricey cloth ones recommended by a physician friend, which cover about two-thirds of my face and are cozy in the wind, and a nice black-and-white cotton mask, a gift, covered with dozens of famous quotes from Shakespeare: “To be or not to be,” “Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”
But the best mask in the basket is the one that lights up in a variety of colors, and flashes wildly enough to induce a seizure in the vulnerable. I’ve only wore it once, on Halloween, and maybe I’ll put it on again for the Fourth of July, my own private fireworks. Though by then, it might look like an artifact of times gone by — like a rotary phone you have to explain to the young’uns.
The relaxation of the mask mandate feels like its own vindication of our collective effort -- at least it does here in Massachusetts.
What will we remember of these muffled times? I’ll certainly remember Nancy Pelosi’s wardrobe of masks; she seems to have one that matches each of her vivid ensembles. On Pelosi, a woman who dresses to please herself, her facial rainbow looks like a rebuke to the deniers and super-spreaders who refused to do the right thing in the “love-your-neighbor” department.
The relaxation of the mask mandate feels like its own vindication of our collective effort -- at least it does here in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, in Michigan, for example, where the never-maskers are more prevalent, the ICUs are full to bursting.
The science says that the risk of infection outdoors is small, but hold onto your masks. You might want to wear one during flu season to avoid infection, or to protect others from their own head colds, or to limit exposure to allergens. Much as I hate to say it, COVID-19 or one of its nasty relations may come roaring back. The vaccines are good, very good — but nothing is 100% against this deadly disease.
For now, we are free to plan softball games and cook-outs where we will chat untethered to our screens, without moderators or muting. And all breathe deeply.