Covid mask mandates should be lifted, as we approach pre-pandemic normalcy

Nearly two years after the start of a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 920,000 people in the United States, the masks are finally falling.

People can do pretty much anything they did before Covid – and they can do it without a mask.

This month, four blue states (New Jersey, Connecticut, Oregon and Delaware) announced the end of indoor mask mandates, including in schools. In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul is still deciding whether she will lift the mandate in schools, but has removed it everywhere else. While Covid-19 and its attendant variants have made it virtually impossible to declare an end to this public health crisis, the latest news suggests that we have reached the point in the fight against Covid where Americans can increasingly choose their own way.

For the past 23 months, the word “choice” has been used mostly by anti-vaccine advocates. They have repeatedly said that their choice to wear a mask or their decision to get vaccinated should take precedence over the health of those around them.

But now, it is the vaccinated people who choose. After a terrifying spike in cases in early to mid-January, the omicron surge is in dramatic decline. In just over four weeks, the number of Covid cases has dropped by almost 80%. Already, in most parts of America, life has largely returned to normal. Children are in school, restaurants and bars are open, cultural events are daily. While office life has yet to approach pre-pandemic levels, it’s as much a product of people’s changing relationship with work as a real consequence of Covid.

With public health restrictions increasingly lifted — or in many states, simply non-existent — people can do just about anything they did before Covid, and they can do it without a mask.

That doesn’t mean America is past the pandemic. Covid continues to kill around 2,500 people every day. Millions of unvaccinated Americans remain at risk, meaning tens, if not hundreds, of thousands more people will likely die unnecessarily from a preventable disease. But given that vaccines have been readily available for 10 months, it’s unclear what else to do to convince those who apparently don’t want to be convinced. About a quarter of Americans have chosen the freedom to remain unprotected over the supposedly unreasonable suggestion to shield themselves from a deadly virus.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans have made a different choice.

The thing is, if you’re vaccinated and boosted, your chances of getting seriously ill from Covid are incredibly slim. Your chances of dying are infinitesimally small. For those of us who are not worried about getting sick and feel that the risk of Covid is worth returning to normal civic and social life, the pandemic has reached a manageable point. We can balance the risks of contracting Covid with the desire to return our lives to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. It’s happened before, and with the new lifting of public health restrictions, it’s only going to get bigger. And make no mistake, it was the miraculous Covid vaccines that made this possible.

Given that vaccines have been available for up to 10 months, it’s unclear what else to do to convince those who don’t want to be convinced.

If you remain concerned about Covid – or if you have a comorbidity or are immunocompromised – you can choose to continue to avoid large crowds and continue to keep your mask on. The same goes for parents with children under 5 years old. Although the data shows that children are at less risk, it’s no surprise that some parents want to be extra careful. Even for all the constant requests to “open everything” (although almost everything is already open), there will be Americans who are reluctant to let their guard down. It’s hard to blame them. After all, in the spring, many thought the pandemic was coming to an end; then came delta. After that surge — and a drop in cases and deaths — it looked like normality might be around the corner; then came omicron. The pandemic has been a frustrating process of one step forward and two steps back.

But what’s different now is that for perhaps the first time since the pandemic began, we can go our own way.

Americans are being offered a clear option to make their own decisions about their health and risk tolerance. These are the kinds of choices that are made virtually every day – and in ways we don’t often recognise. When we get into a car on a snowy, freezing day or cycle down a crowded city street or when we assign new freedoms and responsibilities to our children, whether it’s allowing them to walk home from school. school or giving them access to social media platforms on their phone, we engage in an eternal balancing act. Covid will be no different.

Covid is not going away, and it will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. How we deal with this reality will define the next stage of Covid. While that doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, it does mean we’re much closer to its end than its beginning.

James C. Tibbs