• Sat. Sep 18th, 2021

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How the Scientific American Staff Is Reacting to the CDC’s New Mask Guidance

The staff at Scientific American are mostly—if not completely—vaccinated against COVID-19, and we’re grateful and relieved. An enormous amount of evidence shows that we are almost entirely protected from severe illness or dying of COVID, and more coming out all the time shows that we’re highly unlikely to pass the virus along to other people. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s safe for us to stop wearing masks in most situations. But it’s not that simple. Here’s when, where and why some of us are still wearing masks—and when we’re comfortable going without.

Amanda Montañez, Associate Graphics Editor

I’m thrilled to be vaccinated and able to take my mask off outside. But when I take my two-year-old to any public indoor setting, I’m still going to worry about exposing him to unmasked people whose vaccination status I cannot know. Even though young kids don’t tend to get very ill from COVID, the risk is still there. (And even if my son ended up with a mild or asymptomatic infection, I would hate for him to spread it to others at his day care.) I will encourage him to wear a mask—and will happily model that behavior by wearing mine—but as anyone who has met a two-year-old understands, I can’t always count on him to follow instructions. So, I would really prefer everyone stay masked indoors until more of the population is fully vaccinated.

Maya Harty, Senior Secretary

This question has certainly been making the rounds just among my small circle of friends and family since the restriction was lifted. Personally, I/we trust the science way more than I trust strangers to abide by the honor system and be truthful and forthcoming about their vaccine status. Were everyone vaccinated, we’d still have that very slim chance of contracting the virus, but with people who are all-out anti-vaxxers or others who aren’t inherently anti-vaxxers but are hesitant to be vaccinated, it just increases that small percentage of risk. One single-mom vaccinated friend of mine has an elderly mom who is also vaccinated, but worries, if she should get sick, who would look after her 14-year-old son. Another has a toddler and also teaches a fitness class at [the gym chain] Equinox. I walked my dogs the last couple of days up in the suburbs unmasked, but still keep my distance. But in the city, I wanted to keep my mask on running to the deli. I also think the anticipated stigma attached to those who should be masking may tempt unvaccinated folks not to mask (they may reason, “I should be OK since everyone else is vaccinated”). We’re all basically in the camp of: how can you really know who is fully vaccinated outside your trusted circle?

Michael Lemonick, Chief Opinion Editor

As a fully vaccinated person, I’ve loosened up a bit, especially when I’m outside but even indoors in a restaurant, for example, that’s mostly empty and/or enforces social distancing. But I always wear a mask in places where it’s required, either indoors or outdoors (even if the CDC says the latter isn’t necessary). That’s out of respect for other people and because I don’t like acting as though the rules don’t apply to me (again, even if those rules are stricter than what the CDC now allows). Plus, as we’ve been reminded by experts and commentators, how does anyone else know I really have been vaccinated? Since they can’t, I don’t want to be mistaken for someone who has been ignoring mask guidance all along and now knows they can get away with it more easily.

Gary Stix, Senior Editor, Mind/Brain

I don’t like wearing a mask. Having one on fogs my glasses even in summer. I’ve tried different masks, liquids, tape and all kinds of linings to prevent fogging. Nothing works. I still can’t see. Another reason I don’t like wearing masks is I miss the expressions on people’s faces, a key part of social interactions. Even so, I have worn a mask since it was recommended by public health officials last year, and haven’t thought twice about it. The situation is a bit confused at the moment as far as what to do. I will continue to wear one if it’s required by a business or if it’s the protocol for a party or other social event. I will be very glad when it becomes somewhat clearer as to when it’s okay to take off face coverings for good. But I will put one on again without protest if needed to protect others or myself. I’m not thrilled about mask-wearing as a symbol of social or political identity because it undercuts the usefulness of these aerosol barriers as public-health measures. It’s like being for or against Band-Aids or aspirin—which side are you on? It’s just not helpful.

Laura Helmuth, Editor-in-Chief

This pandemic is not over. SARS-CoV-2 is highly infectious (and apparently more infectious all the time), and airborne and invisible, and it’s spreading in a population that still has too many people who can’t or won’t get vaccinated. I’m fully vaccinated but will wear a mask for the foreseeable future whenever I’m in enclosed spaces among strangers (grocery stores, mass transit). I don’t know if I can trust them, and they shouldn’t have to worry about whether they can trust me. It’s a small, simple thing that has become a huge political signal, but fundamentally it signals that we care about other people.

Tanya Lewis, Senior Editor, Health and Medicine

I feel extremely fortunate to be fully vaccinated. The evidence of the vaccines’ effectiveness is overwhelmingly strong, and being outside lowers that risk even more. I feel quite safe not wearing a mask outdoors as long as I’m not in a crowd, and when I’m indoors with vaccinated family members or friends. But I plan to keep wearing my mask in most public indoor or crowded settings until the number of COVID cases here in New York has dwindled much lower and more people have gotten vaccinated. I’m not that worried that I myself will become infected and get sick (which is a very unlikely but nonzero possibility). It’s more the fact that, in a public setting, there is no way to know if others have been vaccinated, or to signal to them that you have. Under the new guidelines there is nothing to stop unvaccinated people from going maskless as well, and that could jeopardize the health of immunocompromised people, for whom the vaccine may be much less effective, and young children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. So, I’m happy to keep wearing a mask in most public spaces to normalize behavior that protects others. Even once COVID is no longer a big threat, I’ll probably wear a mask in places like airports or airplanes, subways and doctor’s offices, to reduce the spread of other respiratory viruses like the flu and colds.

Andrea Gawrylewski, Senior Editor, Collections

I’m nearly giddy to be going mask-free outside and in public (though I’m of course still wearing a mask in places that require it, like inside many stores or on public transit). The science is what gives me the freedom to feel safe. These vaccines prevent nearly 100 percent of hospitalizations and death whether you catch the virus outdoors or indoors—but your chances of even getting COVID once vaccinated are extremely low. The latest research shows cases of transmission of the virus by vaccinated people are very rare. And research at this moment shows the vaccines are protective against most variants of the virus. All this to say: If you’ve been vaccinated, you have protected yourself and the person on the street, even if they are not vaccinated. If they are not vaccinated and unmasked, you will likely not infect them. This is why vaccination is so important. And unfortunately, people who won’t get vaccinated or refuse to wear a mask likely won’t change their minds because you are still wearing a mask outdoors in public. After the collective trauma the country has lived through it’s no wonder there will be an adjustment period and trepidation. Since I have don’t have kids to worry about, the above facts help me feel so much better (though, children are at low risk for serious cases of COVID). Science is my biggest comfort.

Dean Visser, Chief News Editor

COVID-19 has been a historic and planetary-scale disaster, a slow-motion asteroid strike that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and derailed millions of other lives; wearing a mask for a while longer seems like a pretty small concession. The overall danger is probably waning, but there are still unknowns about transmission by those vaccinated, and by young children. COVID also still presents significant extra risks for some groups. So, I’ll plan to continue wearing a mask in busy outdoor areas and all indoor public ones, until the data become clearer and the local transmission rate gets closer to zero. It’s really not a serious inconvenience at all. If this helps protect even one person—a vulnerable family member, a friend, a colleague or a total stranger—it’s worth it.

Andrea Thompson, Associate Editor, Sustainability

Because I spent most of the pandemic either pregnant or with a small baby, my own habits around masking and distancing have tended to be extremely cautious. While I was pregnant, my husband handled trips to the grocery store and laundromat to reduce the number of indoor spaces I had to enter. When going to the doctor’s office—pretty much the only place I went inside—I double-masked using N95s or KN95s. Although my husband and I are both now fully vaccinated, and my son should have antibodies from breast milk, we are still erring on the side of caution because the baby is so young. There is also the difficult mental shift after months of scrupulous mask wearing when going anywhere outside of our apartment, so it will likely take time for us to feel more comfortable going maskless.

Right now, we still bring masks with us when we walk the dog or take the baby out in his stroller. We may not wear them when there are few or no other people around, but we tend to put them on if the sidewalk gets crowded, or if people we pass are themselves wearing masks. We’ll probably start having the odd beer sitting outside at a bar, but we don’t plan to eat or drink indoors anytime soon. And we’ll continue to wear masks indoors for the time being.

Clara Moskowitz, Senior Editor, Space and Physics

Personally, I’m thrilled to ditch my mask in situations where it’s allowed and now recommended by the CDC. The first time I could go for a morning jog without my mask on felt like a wonderful freedom. My wife and I are fully vaccinated, as are all our adult family members, and I feel pretty confident in the amazing data that shows the vaccines are incredibly effective at protecting us from COVID and preventing us from spreading it as well. I have two small children who are not vaccinated, which definitely changes the calculus, but based on the science we have and statistics on little kids getting sick from the virus, I’m not particularly worried about mine getting COVID. I’m more worried about car accidents and drowning and choking and lots of other threats that really do keep me up at night worrying about their safety.

I will be thrilled to get them vaccinated as soon as it’s approved for their ages. Ultimately, though I completely respect people who still feel nervous without masks, or prefer to keep wearing them for any reason, I am personally ready to take mine off in situations where experts are saying it’s okay. For so long I have been part of the chorus saying, “Trust the science!” when it meant wearing masks and following all the CDC guidelines. I feel the same way now that science and the CDC are telling us it’s safe to take our masks off. Plus, I am so sick of my glasses fogging up all the time!

Josh Fischman, Senior Editor, Medicine and Science Policy

I still wear a mask in crowds, even outdoors, because other people have no way of knowing that I am fully vaccinated—I am—and I don’t want to scare them. I want people to know I’m trying to keep them protected. If a lot more people in the U.S. get vaccinated, I will feel better about going maskless. But with less than half the country fully vaccinated, I’m keeping my mask on in crowds of people I don’t know.