covid-19

The Forever Maskers

Keeping it on, thank you very much. Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Robin Argenti cannot yet envision a future in which she doesn’t wear a mask. “We don’t know if it is going to ever be over,” the 57-year-old resident of upstate New York said of the pandemic. She’s in poor health, and concerned that with the emergence of new variants and the “millions of people who refuse to get vaccinated,” the country will never actually overcome the coronavirus. “I will be masked up for many, many years,” she said. “There are too many unknowns.”

As more and more Americans get vaccinated, the end of the pandemic feels palpable. Most people probably cannot wait to cut out the social distancing and take their masks off. I can’t wait for the day when I can walk down the street and look at a sea of strangers’ naked faces. But there are some people like Argenti who say they plan to make mask-wearing a part of daily life, even after the authorities give the thumbs-up to bare your entire face.

Long before the coronavirus arrived, Ben Rosenblum was taking precautions that we would all eventually come to adopt. “I’ve been a mysophobe since middle school,” the 23-year-old digital archivist told me, meaning he’s afraid of uncleanliness and germs. A global pandemic, as it turns out, didn’t quite exacerbate his condition as much as it substantiated it. “If I go out somewhere and I touch crosswalk lights and stuff like that, and I have to open doors and everything, I don’t feel like I’m insane for coming home and vigorously scrubbing my hands down,” he said. He took to mask-wearing pretty quickly, and has come to enjoy it. “It does give you this sort of privacy in that you’re hiding half of your face,” he said. Even after he is vaccinated and the pandemic ends, Rosenblum plans on continuing wearing a mask in public.

Michael Bizzaro, a Colorado teacher, told me that while he doesn’t particularly enjoy wearing a mask, he’s noticed health benefits beyond not getting (or spreading) COVID-19. “Being a public-school teacher, there are multiple times a year that I get sick,” he said. “Being in the presence of lots of teenagers, I get colds quite often. I’m affected pretty badly by seasonal allergies.” Even though he has gone back to teaching in person, he told me, “I have not had any sort of sickness — a cough, a sneeze, a fever, anything — since the pandemic started.” For Bizzaro, continuing to wear a mask in a post-COVID world is somewhat of a no-brainer. “It’s not even a minor inconvenience wearing the mask, so why not wear it in the future?”

Lexi McCoy, who works at a coffee shop-cum-record store in Los Angeles, has also noticed that her health has actually improved since masking up. “I feel like every other month, I was sick, with colds or whatever,” she said of the before times. “It was really messing up my life. I am in a band and I play shows. When I was getting sick all the time, I would lose my voice and I couldn’t sing.” McCoy couldn’t figure out why she was always under the weather. “I thought, This is my life. I just get sick all the time.

Then came the pandemic. She stopped playing shows, started wearing a mask at work, and wearing gloves to handle cash from customers. “This is the longest stretch of time I have ever not gotten sick,” she said. She acknowledges that perhaps this is due to going out a lot less, not sharing microphones at concerts, etc. But mask-wearing, she believes, has also played a major role. “Some people might say it would be dramatic to keep wearing a mask when masks aren’t mandated anymore, but I think if it protects yourself and others, it’s a good call.” Wearing a mask in public has been commonplace in parts of East Asia for upward of 100 years following several epidemics there.

A common thread among these forever maskers is genuine worry about getting other people sick. “The pandemic has opened my eyes and a lot of people’s eyes to how sicknesses get transferred,” McCoy said. It’s almost become a cliché to reiterate, but masks protect other people from you more than they protect you from other people. Rosenblum, too, cited “concern for and about others” as the primary reason he wants to continue wearing a mask.

Lina Perl, a licensed clinical psychologist, said that the pandemic has “collectively given everyone almost like an anxiety disorder.” She called the inclination to wear a mask after it’s no longer medically necessary a “safety behavior” that can alleviate some people’s anxieties. “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,” she said. “But you can get disconnected from the actual danger.”

While wearing a mask remains important to stopping the spread of the coronavirus, Perl pointed out that there may be psychological drawbacks to the practice. “One thing we do naturally is look at other people’s faces to gauge how anxious you should be in any given situation,” she said. “Wearing masks all the time has removed that, which actually heightens anxiety, when you don’t know how everyone else is feeling.” Someone smiling at you on the street, for example, is “a way of modulating and regulating our own nervous system,” Perl said. She hopes that in a post-COVID society, forever maskers “don’t underestimate the loss of that connection,” and all the positivity that can come from seeing other people’s faces in public.

But the psychological trauma of COVID runs deep. For Argenti, the pandemic has been particularly devastating. A close family member died of COVID. She’s had an unstable living situation. And being by herself the whole time has been particularly difficult for her. ”I would give anything just to hold someone’s hand. People need other people. You need human contact to survive in this world,” Argenti said.

Argenti said she was diagnosed with agoraphobia before the pandemic, and it has only worsened since she was given an actual reason to fear going to public places. She’s so worried about getting sick that she hasn’t seen her daughter in over a year. “She said, ‘Mom, I already had COVID, so I don’t think I need the shot.’ I said, ‘Yes you do. You could get COVID twice. I know people who have gotten it twice,’” Argenti said. “She’s just — I mean, you can’t really do so much. I said, ‘You’re not gonna see me until you’re fully vaccinated. Because you’re not gonna come up here and kill me.’”

Even so, Argenti dislikes wearing a mask. “I get winded very quickly because of my heart issue, and it’s very difficult for me to breathe with a mask,” she said. “But I will not take it off.” Is there anything that might change her mind? “The only time I will ever take the mask off is when I hear there are zero deaths, and it stays that way for a couple months, and there’s no new infections,” she said. “But I highly doubt that is going to happen anytime soon.”

The Forever Maskers