It's been a full calendar year — or as the millennials on Instagram say, a full trip around the sun — since we started wearing face masks. In the early pandemic aughts, we strove to make our face masks work with our outfits: leopard prints, groundbreaking florals, and even political masks were all the rage. And then, many of us reverted back to the simple surgical masks, often doubling up on cotton ones. Phone, keys, wallet, face mask — that's all you need.
But now that 50% of all adults in the United States are vaccinated with at least one shot and eligibility for receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is now open to everyone over the age of 16 or 18, depending on what state you're in, a future without face masks actually seems...possible? Still, one real question remains: Just how close are we to not wearing face masks anymore?
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Americans might only need to wait until 2022 before a mask-free reality exists once again. When asked about people in the U.S. wearing face masks for another year during a February appearance on CNN's "State of the Union," Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said: "You know, I think it is possible that that's the case and, again, it really depends on what you mean by normality." Dr. Fauci also expressed his optimism for getting back to what he again described as normality by the end of 2021.
"As we get into the fall and the winter, by the end of the year, I agree with [President Joe Biden] completely that we will be approaching a degree of normality," he told host Dana Bash.
But even as life begins to go back to some semblance of normal — as seen by states (often prematurely) lifting COVID-19 restrictions — Dr. Fauci and the CDC continue to stress the importance of wearing a face mask to keep COVID-19 transmission rates low. Until more of the U.S. is fully vaccinated, continuing to wear face masks will help fend off new variants of the coronavirus and keep others healthy overall.
But let's also talk about the elephant in the room (chat? website?): Some of us kind of maybe like wearing face masks now. There's a certain anonymity to wearing a face mask outside or an added comfort when going makeup-free. Plus, face masks aren't just protecting us from COVID, or stopping us from transmitting it — they are also protecting us from a whole host of other airborne infections. And because of face masks, flu cases this past winter dropped dramatically.
Opting to wear face masks for the foreseeable future, according to the Intelligencer, is also a popular choice among teachers, germaphobes, and those with preexisting conditions like heart disease. "Forever maskers," as they've been dubbed, have their reasons for wanting to permanently cover-up, including wanting to keep others safe from them. Another reason, experts say, is rooted in anxiety.
"It's no different than having a drink or taking a drug or running or any number of ways that we kind of manage our anxiety," clinical psychologist Lina Perl told Intelligencer about people who choose to wear face masks even after the danger of COVID-19 is gone. "But you can get disconnected from the actual danger." While she understands why forever maskers choose to continue to hide their faces, Perl also voiced her hope that they "don't underestimate the loss of [human] connection," which society will achieve again once our faces are back out in full display.
Still, outside of mental health reasons like anxiety, Americans wanting to make face masks a permanent part of our culture is growing in popularity. The conversation has persisted since 2020, with the general consensus being that the country as a whole could stand to adopt cleaner habits.
We still have a ways to go until the "normality" predicted for 2022 occurs. And there is a future, maybe, sometime, where you could be maskless and sweaty in a concert crowd once again. But until then, the regular check of keys, wallet, cell phone, and face mask continues. As it should.