Tribal Adherence to the Mask

Why do some people continue to wear masks?

Though the CDC has announced that masking is no longer required for people who have been vaccinated, mask persistence seems to be sustaining itself. In New York City, where I live, most pedestrians continue to wear masks, in defiance of both common sense and various executive orders and recommendations, which never prescribed masking in the open air, except in the case of being unable to avoid crowds. 

Even after stores like Trader Joe’s dropped mask requirements, literally every customer and staff person continue to wear masks. After the CDC’s announcement last week, there was a spate of comments on social media by liberals expressing frustration that they would no longer have a convenient way to signal their fealty to progressive politics and the fact that they are not Republicans. Simply continuing to wear a mask, regardless of what the government says, is apparently the easier approach. 

You might respond by saying that New York City’s experience does not match that of the rest of America—especially Red states where individual freedom is highly prized. Well, having spent this week in Miami, I can assure you that mask compliance in Ron DeSantis’s utopia equals or exceeds what I have experienced in Manhattan. 

Kendall, the part of western Miami-Dade County that I have been in, voted heavily for Trump. It is inhabited mostly by Cubans and Venezuelans, groups whose supposed resistance and hostility to socialist dogma have inspired their dedication to freedom and their hatred of state-enforced mandates. One would imagine that full face exposure would be embraced here, if anywhere. But that’s really not the case. 

Chain stores like CVS have dropped mask mandates, and offer only a “recommendation” that people wear masks. But everyone is masked. All restaurants have the same weird pantomime of forced masking between the front door and one’s seat that holds in New York. Deep prole establishments like the Goodwill Superstore or El Presidente supermarket, where no one speaks English, are 100% mask compliant. A gas station attendant who sits in a climate-controlled booth by herself and takes money through a retractable drawer wears a mask, as does a Thai restaurant owner who has converted to takeout only, keeps his establishment locked, and has put down a cordon sanitaire around the front door with tape and little orange cones. 

At the same time, however, I have heard from people who have driven through rural Ohio and Arkansas—also deep Red areas—that nobody wears masks there, and that the odd looks are directed at the rare bird who bothers to wear one. Voting patterns clearly don’t explain what’s going on.  

Masking speaks to deep psycho-cultural preoccupations and taps into taboos that are rooted, if not in human evolutionary development, then certainly in language and cultural formation. Masks relate profoundly to how we conceptualize external threats and figure ourselves as members of society. 

Mask mandates opened a dark Pandora’s Box of primal suspicion. The order to mask was never based in science, so there is no reason to expect the same people who frantically put them on in the name of Reason to take them off, when the amnesty is similarly rooted in irrationality. Whatever is going on will have to work peristalsistically through the culture before it is digested and expelled.