‘You Can’t Trust People’

Vaccinated people say why they’re bucking CDC and keeping masks on.

Photo: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Photo: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Vaccinated people no longer need to mask outdoors or observe social distancing in most situations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week. For many, the news was cause for celebration, but others greeted it with more caution. Vaccinated people who have decided to mask outdoors tell Intelligencer that they’ve made a considered choice in a time of uncertainty. They aren’t anti-science — after all, they’ve gotten their shots — and they know the virus is still out there, still a threat to people they love.

If mask-wearing seems persistent in people who’ve been vaccinated, perhaps there are other questions worth asking about how to rebuild trust in institutions and each other in an unequal and polarized country. When society breaks down, all that’s left are individuals and their decisions.

The pandemic is ongoing, and the CDC offered no advice for the parents of unvaccinated children. People with disabilities worried that the unscrupulous behavior of others would put them at risk. There are still too many unknowns about the virus, some said. In the face of their caution, critics point to the scientific evidence. A person, once vaccinated, presents a negligible risk of transmission, especially outdoors. And if they do get the virus, which is rare, they suffer a mild or asymptomatic case.

But this conflict isn’t just about science. After a year of death, normal is a fantasy and the trauma is real. As a Vice News article pointed out before the CDC issued its new recommendations, people “are going to have some feelings around transitioning back to a less cautious way of life.” Before a self-appointed Ben Shapiro swings in to yell “facts don’t care about your feelings,” perhaps they should consider the context and a few additional facts. Though most Americans have complied with masking regulations, anti-maskers are loud, aggressive, and potentially dangerous, with allies in local and state governments and, for a while, in the Trump administration. Caught between human threats and the CDC’s ever-shifting advice, people are losing confidence. Not only in public institutions, but in the public itself.

These interviews have been edited for length and for clarity.

Amber, 36

I live with my partner and my brother. We discussed it and none of us feel comfortable, so it was a household decision. So it’s about respecting each other, and the people I live with, in how we go outside right now. That’s one aspect of it. And another one is probably something you’ve heard on Twitter. I am concerned that people who don’t wear masks, who don’t get vaccines, are just going to lie and say, like, “I’m vaccinated now and I don’t wear a mask.” So I’m just concerned about other people’s behavior.

It feels like the CDC is sort of inconsistent about the public-health mandates or suggestions they have been putting out. For example, in the beginning of the pandemic they were like, “No masks, because they’re for medical professionals.” Then it’s, “Mask up.” It just seems like really poor handling all around. It’s distrust of the general public and distrust in institutions like the CDC and a general consensus in the household.

I’m training to be a scientist. I just finished grad school and that’s what my career is. And I understand the literature, but I feel like wearing masks is a personal choice. Even if you’re vaccinated, and yes, it’s safe, wearing a mask is also safer. I’m not risking anything by wearing a mask.

Char, 64

You can’t trust people. I have been out some in the last — what is it now? — 16 months. But so many people are not wearing masks because, you know, it’s a hoax or whatever. The fact is that it isn’t. And if you’ve got a chronic condition, you don’t take these things lightly. It’s your life.

When I first got sick in 1978, they did this really awesome job of keeping me alive until they could actually do everything else, so I didn’t have to go on dialysis until they found me a good kidney. I’m not going to mess it up. There’s people on community boards who are saying, “Oh, it’s no big deal, it’s only 0.4 percent of the population who dies.” But if that’s you, that kind of matters, right? Or if it’s your husband or if it’s your mother. Numbers don’t mean anything when it’s real, and this is real.

I mostly trust the CDC. I wish they had handled this differently because I don’t think they took into account just how many people are not doing what they’re supposed to. You’re going to have unvaxxed people who go, “Oh, it’s okay if the CDC said it’s okay,” leaving out the whole point, that the CDC said it’s okay if you’ve gotten both your shots.

I got my first shot at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. They were doing transplant-recipient antibody research. And anybody who participated got a little card that you did five tabs of blood once a week. It ended up being for a total of eight weeks so they could measure and see if there are any antibodies in immunosuppressed patients because our immune systems don’t work well. I don’t know the results from the study I was doing, but Johns Hopkins released one and said it looks like maybe 17 percent of people who are on anti-rejection are getting some kind of antibodies. And so we actually have no idea if I actually have any antibodies. Again, not taking a chance. That’s what it comes down to.

James, 21

In general, the growing wave of pundits, elected officials, and Wall Street chyrons who are racing to end the wearing of masks and “open up” have not once taken a look at the structural failure of the health-care system in this country. I am going to keep wearing a mask, because even if I get the common cold or the flu, it is debilitating and I would have to pay out of pocket for health care. I received the J&J vaccine, but I still cannot afford to get sick with a common ailment, because I only find out what it will cost and how I will be able to handle the payment of care after I am already very sick and in an emergency room.

But instead of realizing the benefit that the normal wearing of masks has to vulnerable members of the population without a job or health coverage like myself, it all gets reduced down to thinking about the spread of disease in terms of COVID-19. It has nothing to do with some moralizing effect that I ostensibly have toward other people for wearing a mask (in the thinking of the reopen discourse). But it has everything to do with the precarity of my health, and health care, as well as those in my household and my community. It was easy for everyone to understand that their recklessness during the height of the pandemic was exposing their community to greater risk, but suddenly the pundit class seems to have forgotten about this?

Are we only responsible for avoiding the spread of COVID-19? Will we not consider mask-wearing an acceptable social strategy to vitiate any waves of flu or other sickness that would put the same vulnerable populations at risk, all because of some negative associations from this pandemic? This seems foolish to me and I have no idea what the rush is to “reopen.” I will absolutely wear a mask in public and around elderly members of my family, and it has nothing to do with enjoying some supposedly moral high ground — 600,000 people died and we learned nothing.

Courtney, 36

My husband and I are both vaccinated. My 5-year-old can’t be yet. I live somewhere with poor vaccine uptake and assume most of those people will lie and not wear masks given the general behavior of my region throughout the pandemic.

I am likely to be more cautious now that anti-vaccine people have no societal pressure to wear masks because no one will know they are violating the rules. The asymptomatic-transmission possibility through me to my child and the lack of sufficient data on possible long-term impacts in kids combine to make me feel like my child is considerably less safe after this. While the asymptomatic-transmission risk is small compared to if I were unvaccinated, it is still present (according to epidemiologists I saw critique this decision, protection from asymptomatic transmission is roughly 70–80 percent with the least-threatening variant) and a gamble I am not comfortable making. Other viruses can cause long-term issues from childhood infections and we do not have enough time passed to know if that is a risk here.

I am very frustrated that the general statements from authorities today seem to be coming from a place of trusting the behavior of anti-vaccine people, which seems foolish. Instead of having collective public-health policy protection, now people with children or who have immune-system problems that make vaccines less effective have to attempt to protect themselves without the benefit of collective actions.

Jeff, 46

There are two reasons I’m still masking, a substantive reason and a reason that is the signal it sends. For me, the signal it sends is much more important because if you see someone on the street, you don’t know if they’re vaccinated or not. And unfortunately, the last year and a half or so has really undermined my trust in some of my fellow Americans to do the thing that is in the interest of public health. What I want to do, even though I’m fully vaccinated, is to send that message that I’m taking this seriously until it is completely over. The other reason that I’m taking it seriously is substantive because every little bit helps. And even though vaccination is wildly effective and big numbers matter, small numbers also matter. Every little bit of edge that we can get to beat back the pandemic, even if it’s an additional one percent, is, I think, meaningful. So I just want to do my part to help this end.

I own a Brazilian jujitsu studio. If you could design an activity to spread COVID, you would design this, because it’s a bunch of people indoors grappling with each other, wrestling at really close quarters. I give people free merchandise and a credit on their membership when they prove vaccination. I do understand the argument that, “Hey, we have to make clear to people the benefits of vaccination.” But I think it’s pretty unpredictable sometimes, what benefits are going to speak to what people, because the Ohio lottery would not incentivize me at all. We should offer as many incentives as possible to get people vaccinated. I just think the mask is an additional layer of protection that we shouldn’t discard at this stage.

Natalie, 30

In my age group, I was probably in the minority that stayed home all year. Not a plane ride, not a train ride, nothing, because I was living with a pregnant woman, my sister. For me, having a lot of family overseas gave me a different lens to the virus, because while we were able to go to Target and wherever here, I had family members with curfews in other countries that some days couldn’t leave their house. Massive restrictions that were so different. We lost over a dozen people over the last year, and I thought that was the experience for everyone. And then the deeper we got into the pandemic, I talked to friends here in the U.S. that didn’t even know someone who had died. While fully believing in the virus, they had not experienced any loss. So for them, it also was just this large inconvenience while other people are just massively suffering. So I think for me it’s all because of my own experiences.

What’s difficult for me to understand is that these experiences aren’t just behind closed doors. We hear about them every day. We’ve heard stories all year from doctors, the awful stories of people not believing in the virus even until their last breath. And so I just don’t get how people can just celebrate an announcement like that, knowing that it will lead to deaths. I’m not going to be a part of anyone getting sick.

My husband was confused by my stance at first. I think because it’s the first time for a CDC directive to come out and for me to not immediately be on board. Especially with this one. It feels like the liberating one, right? Where we can, in quotations, “Get back to normal.” Although I hate that phrase because there is really no returning to our pre-COVID life. I’m thinking about the extra factors where we have children in our family that are unvaccinated. There’s still a small percentage of chance that people can get sick even if they’re vaccinated or carriers and so forth. And I think he hadn’t thought of those things initially. Once we talked through the thinking of, “Yeah, I think if we’re around people and we can’t confirm that everyone’s been vaccinated and that it’s safe, we just will continue wearing masks,” he did also agree with it in the end.

Spider, 43

I have celiac disease and one of my partners has a heart condition. And I know a lot of people who are living in that kind of situation. I’m able to be vaccinated. I know people who are not able to be vaccinated. And being a disability-rights activist informs my decisions because of the knowledge that it brings me in terms of empathy. Which seems to be sorely lacking in these conversations. The American, individualistic, “well I got mine”’ seems to really be dominating a lot of the conversations about COVID in general. It’s very strong in our society.

As I became disabled, I had to become an advocate for myself. And that kind of led itself into being a disability-rights activist in general, and then the more that you’re involved in that community, the more you understand how many different circumstances people can find themselves in and how many different reasons there are why people can’t get vaccinated or even if they’re vaccinated, maybe the vaccine will not necessarily work as well for them because their immune systems aren’t as sturdy. We don’t know with me, because I have an autoimmune disorder. There’s not a lot of good research into how those two things work together. Like, is my immune system working properly today? I don’t know.

I live in a very blue area right now, but I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania and it’s trending bluer now as people move around. But the country where I’m from was absolutely solid red during the ’90s. Some of the smartest people I know, people with doctorates, people who know statistics, have been taken in by some of the propaganda that we’ve seen in this country over the last four years. So a lot of my not trusting people is being very aware of the environment where I grew up, where it is very much, “Got mine, look out for yourself and maybe your own, but, like, everybody else can get effed.”

I don’t know that I can trust people in general. Individuals, sure, but people as a homogenous group, I don’t think I can. First of all, even if I was thinking about that, the question then comes down to: Is that trust for other people worth the life of either of my partners or my child? And of course, then the answer is no. It can’t be otherwise. My trust for the general public cannot be worth the life of my partner who has a heart condition or my daughter who has the asthma that I have, or a vulnerable person in my synagogue.

‘You Can’t Trust People’