Editor’s Notebook: The great mask conundrum

A supermarket door with a poster explaining mask rules
Mask rules differ from store to store. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Last week, Washington Post columnist Tamar Haspel tweeted: “My local supermarket has (a) sign saying they ‘strongly encourage’ everyone to wear a mask. Do you wear one, and feel silly engaging in hygiene theater? Or not wear one and feel a little like an (a–hole)?”

It’s a great question, and on a lot of people’s minds, as evidenced by the comments that followed.

Concord Monitor columnist and reporter David Brooks, known on Twitter as @GraniteGeek, replied: “I wear mine although I’m fully vaxxed but I do feel a little silly. I tell myself it gives psychological support to people who need to stay masked (immunosuppressed, etc), and is a reminder that the pandemic hasn’t magically disappeared.”

Haspel replied: “I have similar feelings. But the vast majority of people who are unvaxxed choose to be unvaxxed. And the thing I’d really like to normalize is vaccination. So there’s no place I’m comfortable here.”

A thoughtful conversation – something of a rarity on Twitter – ensued, with some pointing to the importance of normalizing and encouraging mask wearing, including during cold and flu season, and others settling on something more fundamental: common courtesy. All good points, but for me “The Answer” remains elusive.

A couple of weeks ago, the grocery store I frequent swapped out its “Masks required” sign for one saying there were now separate rules for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Get the shot, ditch the mask. Skip the shot, cover up.

The first time I saw the new poster, I stared at it dumbly for a few seconds, took a couple of steps into the store, identified maskless employee after maskless employee, and then removed the cloth mask from my face and put it in my back pocket. My steps felt lighter during that excursion, and I found myself doing something I rarely do while food shopping: smiling.

When I returned to the store a few days later, the mask stayed with the loose change and crumpled receipts in my truck’s console. This time, however, it wasn’t the maskless faces that struck me but the number of people still wearing them. My naked face clearly landed me in the minority – and I knew that a lot of those masks were being worn by people who, like me, were fully vaccinated. Inner conflict took root. 

What message did I want to send: “Hey, I’m not wearing a mask and that means it’s been at least two weeks since my second shot. Yay, science!” or “I’m still wearing a mask because I don’t think you can be too sensitive when it comes to the physical and emotional well-being of others.” Both are fine things to signal to the world, but what if my fellow shoppers misread my decision entirely and thought I was wearing a mask because I’m skeptical of the vaccine or not wearing one only because I think COVID is overblown?

I’ve returned to the store several times since then, always maskless, and the struggle continues. When I walk down an aisle with others not wearing masks, I feel like we are leading the charge to normalcy and should be high-fiving. When I pass, say, a masked older couple, I feel nothing but guilt. I want to apologize and explain that the last thing I want to do is make them feel uncomfortable, that I really do care about them, and if they would rather that I still wear a mask I would be happy to run back to the parking lot and grab one. 

But then I’d pass another older couple, both with easy smiles on uncovered faces, and righteousness would return.

Grocery shopping is now something very much like my childhood as a Catholic: rapid transitions between joy and guilt.

I am no closer to definitively answering Haspel’s Twitter question today than last week, but I will make one small change in my behavior: I plan to keep a mask in my pocket when I shop. That way I can read the room, as they say, and remain flexible. 

Going maskless, or wearing one, doesn’t have to be my religion. For now, in these odd days, that answer will have to do.