Being Distanced and Maskless Outside Is Safe. So Why Are We Fighting Over It?

It only took one instance of public shaming for me to never leave my home maskless again. In April 2020, I went for a jog, bare-faced, along a wide boulevard in my Brooklyn neighborhood. “Wear a mask!” a man shouted, scandalized, as I passed him several feet away. He’d been talking with a companion as I approached and the scolding felt like a demonstration for the person he was with, like: Can you believe this lady? “No, I think it’s OK!” I stammered as I looked back, gesturing to the air around us in a panicked plea for him to understand that I follow the rules. “Because we’re outside and — six feet?” 

New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo issued a mandate right around the time of that fateful jog requiring New Yorkers to wear masks “when in a public place and unable to maintain, or when not maintaining, social distance.” “Six feet” had been a talking point for a while, and I had been cutting wide berths around people I passed when I was maskless on the street, but that ended right then. Being mistaken as wrong felt even worse than actually being wrong, especially in a terrifying time when the president was claiming the virus would “disappear” “like magic” and the Covid-denying population was rapidly politicizing the mere concept of public health. I decided the over-use of masks wasn’t a hill worth dying on and I opted never to leave my home maskless again. 

My attitude fit with a developing culture, at least in a crowded metropolis like New York. Soon everyone was wearing masks at all times in public, regardless of ventilation or distancing. The universal approach had benefits. New York was the early epicenter of the pandemic. People were new to remembering to put on a mask in necessary circumstances, so wearing one the entire time you were away from home solved that problem. Wearing a mask also became a symbol of solidarity and civic-mindedness. It let people know you were paying attention to what was going on and that you cared about keeping one another safe. It was the unselfish thing to do.

As we approach our second summer of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, with ever-increasing knowledge about how the virus spreads and doesn’t spread, and with more and more of the population being vaccinated, we have begun to reconsider what measures are truly necessary and effective. Recent articles have pointed out that perhaps people don’t need to wear masks in all outdoor contexts — a New York Times piece earlier this week reminded readers that when you’re outside, you need to be either masked or distanced, but not both. “This is how I’ve been living for the past year,” said a leading expert on viral transmission. 

Readers didn’t necessarily seem ready to accept this information, however. A Slate journalist mentioned that perhaps we might consider shedding outdoor masks in some distanced scenarios, and theorized that insisting on wearing masks even when we don’t need to might make it all the more exhausting to keep wearing them when we do need them, an essential practice to curb the ongoing spread of the virus. People on Twitter reacted with outrage, saying “Omg what an incredibly irresponsible article. Wtf?!,” “Shame on @Slate for publishing this,” and “You have blood on your hands.” 

Research on shame suggests that as humans who survive by cooperating with one another, we care deeply about what our community thinks of us. “We are consumed with our reputation, with fitting in, with not being left out,” says Daniel Sznycer, a professor of psychology at the University of Montreal. Oftentimes, feeling like we are doing right in our neighbor’s eyes is even more important than doing what we believe to be correct. This would explain why scolding can be so effective in enforcing mask-wearing. If everyone’s doing it, deviating from that norm can be a shameful experience, even if a move toward more ideal behavior is based on sound rationale. “Reason and evidence can help us adjust toward the known optimum,” Sznycer says. “But the pull of these ancient reputation-management brain systems is strong: If the true optimum is X, and you know that, but everyone else believes that X is the immoral thing to do, what are you going to do?”

June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University and author of the book Shame and Guilt, says that people who mask-shame others may be reacting from their own fear. Tangney also got scolded last year, while she was riding her bike maskless. To her, it was a wakeup call to fall in line because she believed she had scared someone with her behavior, regardless of what the science or rules may have said at the time. “Somebody was made very uncomfortable,” she says, adding that we’ll need to be patient while people adjust to changing regulations at this stage in the pandemic, too. “It’s gonna take a while to ease back into quote-unquote ‘normal’ life. Different people are going to have different tolerance of risk.”

It’s true: everyone who survives this crisis is going to have to cope with its after-effects. We should be empathetic toward one another and respect that people will stay scared, and some people’s fears may not be rational but they are still real. Of course no one should mock or pressure someone who chooses to stay both masked and socially-distanced from others outdoors, but we also absolutely need to stop scolding people for staying socially-distanced and maskless outside. Part of getting through the pandemic will be understanding and trusting the contexts in which we really can feel safe, as difficult as it may be to believe. 

Being permitted to take our masks off when it’s safe may even bring us emotional comfort in ways we haven’t considered. “The pandemic has been a real challenge in so many ways, because it exactly hits us where we most have need,” Tangney says. “[Our need] to be together and to be supporting one another and being able to emotionally communicate, through eye contact and facial expressions and all these things that are taken away.”  

Getting more specific about when masks are needed will become increasingly important as more of the population gets vaccinated. Maintaining a culture of mask-wearing in situations where the virus could spread is essential, experts say, because of the risk of variants, breakthrough infections, and for people who have not yet been vaccinated. But wearing masks all day every day, as many essential workers have to, will feel harder as the present risk of infection feels and indeed is lower. Establishing a culture where it’s OK to walk to your car maskless without fear of being admonished, or to leave the mask in your pocket while you take a hike outdoors, will offer a little relief. Shifting our collective beliefs on pandemic behavior isn’t easy, but like everything else about this past year, we’ll get through it together.

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