To Mask, or Not to Mask? That is the question right now

Way, way back at the start of the pandemic, I bought my first mask | Kathryn McKenzie 


By Kathryn McKenzie 

A funny thing happened to me at Safeway yesterday. I found myself short of breath and just the least bit unsteady on my feet. I realized I was clenching my jaw, and made a conscious effort to relax my face.

Then I realized that I had had a similar strange reaction when shopping at the start of the pandemic, way back when we were all just getting accustomed to wearing masks.

Now, it seems, I must get used to being unmasked.

At the start of the pandemic, wearing a mask made me anxious — now, going without one in an enclosed environment is a disorienting experience. It’s a sign of just how conditioned that I have become to that kind of protection. I’m sure I’m far from the only person who feels this way.

Since June 15, we Californians have (in theory) been able to go about most of our daily lives without covering up against COVID.  I was pretty excited about this, to be honest. I had already been enjoying masklessness in the great out-of-doors, ever since I got fully vaccinated.

I hadn’t admitted this to very many people, but I really, really dislike wearing masks. Among the most hateful points:

  • Inevitably, and always, my glasses fogged up.
  • The skin around my chin and lips would break out in weird bumps and pimples, a completely embarrassing state of affairs for someone who qualifies for most senior discounts.
  • Sometimes it was hard to breathe, especially in the beginning when the pandemic felt most threatening.
  • You realize how much more difficult it is to understand people if you can’t see their lips moving. And then there were the many, many folks who likewise couldn’t understand me. So we’d both be there yelling at each other and not meaning to, but it was the only way we could hear what the other was saying.
  • And then there was my pronounced inability to recognize people in masks. People somehow knew me, though, and would brush by with “Oh hi, Kathy,” and then I’d be wondering for days just who that was.
  • I preferred fabric masks because they could be washed and reused, causing less waste and harm to the environment. But it didn’t take long for them to get sweaty and smell like whatever I last ate.

So yes, I was thrilled that masks would be a thing of the past, dumped into the garbage with the rest of the last tragic 16 months. Only then, they weren’t.

Businesses can still require people to mask up, and I completely agree with them having the right to do that. But now, every business is different in what they want customers to do. Adding further confusion is the fact that people must be masked on planes, buses, trains and in all K-12 public schools. It’s a mess.

Many shops and stores are relying on the honor system (as was the case with my neighborhood Safeway), with signs stating that vaccinated people can go maskless while the unvaccinated should mask. Others, like a locally owned, out-of-town candy shop that I visited a week ago, asked everyone to mask. “I’m 80 years old and I have health issues, so I’m still requiring them,” the owner told me. Still other businesses make their employees mask but don’t tell customers to do so.

It’s complicated and bewildering, to say the least. Which is why, I think, many people are still masking no matter what the signs say. It was running about half and half at the grocery store the other day.

There is no good answer to all this yet, and I suppose there won’t be until we can fully put the specter of COVID behind us. As for me, I am really trying to get used to life without a mask again.

I try to remind myself how much I hate wearing masks (for all the reasons I have previously listed) and yet I cannot shake the feeling that I am naked without one. Part of my public wardrobe is now missing. And then there’s the thought that if others are wearing masks, I should too, whether by herd instinct or to make others feel more comfortable around me.

At Safeway yesterday, I gradually relaxed a bit, and yet the rules ingrained in me by pandemic life were guiding me as if on autopilot. I remained six feet away from people. I waited in line with plenty of space between me and the checkout until I was beckoned forward. I resisted using hand sanitizer, though.

My face still felt naked, and that feeling isn’t going away any time soon.

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).