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Remember three years ago this month when shoppers were emptying supermarket shelves and locking themselves down inside? The masking of America was beginning — and for some it has never ended.
On March 4, California’s governor Gavin Newsom terminated a three-year Covid state of emergency. His Department of Public Health will end mask requirements in medical facilities, prisons and homeless shelters beginning April 3. The nation’s official public health emergency will end on May 11.
Blue-state and federal authorities are having a hard time letting go of the crisis. With the end of California’s rules, the city of San Francisco — bless its heart — has instated its own mandatory masking. The elaborate order concludes: “The violation of any provision of this Order constitutes an imminent threat and immediate menace to public health, constitutes a public nuisance, and is punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.” On the third anniversary of Covid’s arrival, in bluest-blue California, plenty of Maskies in Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are still peering over their muzzles with anxious, avoidant eyes. They remind me of the protagonist in Safe. In that brilliant 1995 film, Los Angeles homemaker Julianne Moore moves from a comfortable suburban life into her own world of undetectable biochemical fears. Tortured by health obsessions, she descends into isolation and, ultimately, atomized narcissism.
The Maskies are an assorted lot. The fearful include those with worrying medical conditions, real or imagined, and those who seek eternal life by any means necessary. The Trader Joe’s ladies in their floppy straw hats and long gray hair wear decorative masks as a fashion item, Nancy Pelosi-style. But what about toned millennials, the ones who look like they’ve just finished an island marathon in Kauai? Why in the world are they masked up?
My provisional guess: many are Floppy Straw Hats’s spawn, the “I will be inheriting property tax free someday” young and rich. Like mom, they’re wearing an identity badge. The millennial mask says: environmentalist, anti-gun, vegan, and non-binary. Wellness über alles. It’s high-end California style, along with the starter Tesla and zodiac tattoo. Then there are Maskies with more sinister intent. They can be seen in smash-and-grab robberies and lootings on YouTube, or in Elizabeth Holmes or Samuel Bankman-Fried going to court. Team Biden and the president mask up intentionally and cynically — harder to read with the cover.
Compelling evidence is now emerging that masks played almost no role in limiting the spread of Covid. The whole mask thing was possibly for naught, just as the Wuhan lab leak was not just some right-wing conspiracy theory. Three years ago, such points of view were savaged, punished and canceled. Ask Scott Atlas or Nicholas Wade. But think back to when Covid was new and terrifying. In New York City, and elsewhere, the contagion was frightening and the death toll was staggering. Wear masks in high-rise elevators to help flatten the curve? By all means yes. In mid-March 2020, states ordered broad-based shutdowns to curb the virus. The New York City public school system — the largest in the US, with 1.1 million students — shut down, while Ohio called for restaurants and bars to close.
When no one knew exactly what to do, the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health’s Anthony Fauci and many other authorities recognized and acknowledged that most masks were useless in restricting transmission.
There was no need to wear face masks, Americans heard for a moment that is now largely buried. Mask skeptic Donald J. Trump held widely criticized daily briefings in a monumental leadership failure that possibly cost him the election, and medical advisor Fauci began calling the shots. In a sudden and puzzling reversal, the CDC found masking an essential disease control tool. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus,” it announced in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A flood of mandates and edicts forced cloth coverings in public — outdoors and indoors, in parks and on beaches, everywhere. Recall the bandanas and welding masks.
The public health contradictions micro and macro during the Covid emergency grew uncountable. Abject compliance took over as a test of human value, and censure of slackers was commonplace. Meanwhile, lockdown hawks on the left winked at summer riots, insisting on mail-in national elections for reasons of public health and social distancing.
With the appearance of vaccines in spring 2021, many predicted that the previous year’s anxiety and paralysis would fade and mandates would be rendered obsolete. But no. Once masked up, vaxxed, boosted, and certified, it turned out the Maskies wanted more. Everyone has different comfort levels, said the bien pensant. But it also became clear early on that some people’s comfort levels dialed up into the insane or tyrannical.
Mask fatigue overcame fear about a year ago, as post-Omicron variants became weaker and hospitalizations rare. In February, California lifted its indoor mask mandate. Two months later, a decisive federal court ruling allowed travelers on planes and public transport to take off their masks, noting that the CDC’s mandate exceeded its statutory authority. The masking of America simply wilted despite a contagious summer strain and flurry of positive tests.
Nonetheless, California was going into the 2022 primaries and midterms, and many progressives made a point of wearing masks, signaling they were not an anti-vaxxer or — God forbid — a Trumpist.
In hindsight, why were the vast majority of Americans so pliable and credulous? For many, masks provided some comfort and the illusion of safety. Fear does peculiar things to people. A concerted propaganda campaign can change minds. People don’t want to lose their jobs or be shunned in their community. They don’t want to get kicked out of the store. And so most put on the mask. Then there were the mercenaries and public-paid slackers, including “health-affirming” schoolteachers who might have preferred to continue teaching remotely in their jammies forever. Their union representatives insisted on mask protocols, making already compromised classroom learning all the more so. The impact on the country’s schoolchildren was terrible and has yet to be fully calculated.
The nation’s ruling class is having a very hard time admitting that it might have been wrong on masks and Covid origins, much less that some units within it might have knowingly deceived the country to keep a controlling public health narrative. The masking of America did not induce but certainly amplified the nation’s collective neuroses.
The autocratic political energies permitted to bloom have yet to be repaired. In regions of atomized narcissism, recovery from this viral emergency will take some time, if healing is possible at all.