Masks Off 2.0

Nestled in my email in-box last week between advertisements from Wayfair and Poshmark: 

Boulder County’s Universal Mask Requirement Ends as of 5pm, February 18, 2022.
(That was last Friday. The kids are to return to this brave-new-world version of school tomorrow since today is Presidents Day.)

With omicron cases plummeting, there has been speculation about the possibility of this taking place. But it didn't occur to me that it would happen so fast. (As proof of that, I ordered a five-pack of not-cheap, non-refundable masks for Ruthy the day before the declaration.) 

If you'd have asked me this time last year how I would feel when the mask mandates were lifted I'd have probably replied with something poetic, lyrical, with words like glorious relief and a caged bird set free. That is certainly what I would like to feel, but no. Upon reading those words, I was the bird staring at my computer screen like, Yessir. There it is. There she blows.

Text exchanges with other moms were sans excited caps and rows of fireworks. More like uhhhh, now what??

Alongside this auspicious news was the disclaimer (not in small print), from the media release from Boulder County Public Health, "BCPH strongly recommends individuals 2+ wear an N95, KN95, KF94 or equivalent medical-grade mask over your nose and mouth while indoors and consider wearing a mask in crowded outdoor settings while the county remains at a level of substantial or high transmission." 

In conclusion, you don't HAVE to wear a mask anymore, but please keep wearing the strongest mask available.

The "masks recommended" approach is a strange, if not divisive, one. If masked and surrounded by a crowd of unmasked people, it feels a little like being the only ones to show up to a costume party in costume. For months now, a nearby county, Broomfield, has been "masks recommended." That is where our mall and favorite book store is located. So, in the midst of Christmas shopping, we'd be swimming in a sea of bare-faced folk, and Ruth would be like, "Why do I have to wear a mask when all those other little girls at Claires (not to mention the masses of teens loitering in the food court wearing ripped mom jeans and without a self-preserving care in the world) don't?" 

Frankly, I'm a little pissed that we never got our burn-your-bra moment with the masks. 

There's no closure, no finale. We can kinda see the endemic on the horizon, but we are certainly not brushing elbows with it yet. Two years in and the guidance continues to be inconclusive: maybe, kinda, but probably not, but go ahead but don't say we didn't warn you. It's baffling.

My middle-schooler, Opal, is in no rush to lose her mask. I have heard such things from her friends in the backseat during (masked) carpool, "I'm leaving mine on in the hall, but I'll take it off while I'm at my desk." Along with reports from parents saying their middle schoolers declared they are straight-up keeping them on so they don't get sick. "Too much happens in middle school to have to stay home."

As an adult, I have no qualms with sticking to my mask while inside public spaces. Taking off the masks while still treading cold and flu season feels a little like taking off the water wings while still in the deep end. 

I should mention that I am reporting as a woman whose household has been sick with inconvenient virus bugs for the better part of two weeks now. Up until last night, I slept on the couch so I wouldn't wake up Jesse and Ruth (Ruth sleeps in our room) with my horizontally induced cough. My body is stiff and crusty from the hard cushions and my neck feels locked up—vengeful—from multiple nights of double-pillowing to assist sinus drainage. This is all just to say: a mask in King Soupers to avoid this? Yes please! 

I shudder to think of the bugs (normal, appropriate and yet so disruptive) that will inundate my children, and thus the rest of us, without the barrier of a mask. How do parents work when their kid is home sick for a few days and then the next kid gets it and then, lo behold, the parent is probably next in line. (Jesse was born with a monster-truck immune system and I thank my lucky stars for that.) This question applied during pre-COVID times, but back then we were unacquainted with the concept of a mask and how helpful they are during this time of year. Before COVID, we used to have bugs all the time. I am in no rush to get back to that reality either.

On the other hand, my kindergartener, Ruth, believes masks have been nothing more than a chafing nuisance. Health-shmelth, this damn thing keeps coming off during choice-time. Though it should probably be noted that the majority of the time, Ruth's mask is soaking wet from her sucking on it (masks are not functional when wet), or upside down (snot aimed directly into the mouth). One day she emerged from her classroom at pick-up-time with a boot print on her mask. Not to mention the kids have never worn masks at lunch and we frequently play with her classmates after school, outside, without masks. I'm creating a tally of all this good info as I write. (Read: exposure is already happening. Kids can handle this. We can handle this.)

So since the effectiveness of a masked kindergartner is already in question, where does my ambivalence come from?  I think, perhaps, because masks feel like something we are doing, that we have been doing for TWO YEARS, that is within our power.

There have been so few things we have had control of during this two-year, slow-drip trauma of a pandemic. It all started with a narcissistic president who didn't take it seriously and delayed the roll-out of vaccinations and made it into an us/them political soap opera. Then, with a new sunnier-day POTUS, vaccinations came but people weren't getting them! Our choices were yet again swallowed up into the collective societal whole of conflicting feelings and emotions of our nation. Choices of the confused and overt anti-vaxxers impacted our lives much more than our own level-headed choices did. 

The celebratory nature of getting both our kids vaccinated (they're available to 12 and up! raise a glass! now they're available to 5 and up! raise another glass!) was replaced with the prosaic awareness that we were doing what we felt right doing, but it likely wouldn't matter in the larger scheme of things. At least with other vaccines, there is the faith that our kid won't get polio from another kid who's parents didn't believe in vaccinations. We don't say to our kid during their wellness-visit, get this shot, honey, but it probably won't do you any good since so many other people aren't doing it. 

That little itty bitty mask feels a bit to me like it's taken on a symbolic status. It says something to the effect of, "I still care, ya'll. You make your choices and I'll make mine." 

And I'm feeling scared by the change. Aside from a few months over last summer, (note: I was scared then, too) the messages we have received for two years have been, masks, masks, masks. Stay safe. Make smart, conservative choices and everything will be ok. Well we've done that and it's been two goddam years of this bullshit.

Of course we can't wear masks forever and wouldn't want to. But I'd prefer a slow-lead into this, a take-my-time approach, which I could do if it were just me. Or me and an older kid. We could have a civilized discussion over grapefruit seltzer about how we want to proceed. But with a rambunctious 6-year-old, shy of taking her out of school completely, there is really no nuancing to be had. If she sees that some kids have their masks off, she'll be the first to follow, happily. (And the last thing I want to do is put any pressure on the teacher to tell her otherwise.)

Our dear friend and the school nurse for both my girls shed a little well-educated optimism on the subject. She emailed me, "Something remarkable is happening and I can only hope it is an end to this craziness. We see an opportunity to get off this COVID highway. We see an exit if you will and we must must must try to exit. We know how to get back on the highway, and if we need to (to keep our community safe) we will get back on." 

Her email made me realize how drastically vacant of trust I have been. The possibility of an endemic on the horizon feels like the tease of a cynic. But what if we simply forgot how to imagine it that way?
What if an end to this really were possible?

This news came up over dinner a few nights ago. This is big, Jesse said. Not like hurrah or even WOW, great. His voice was ruminative, thoughtful like an elder who would say something like there are changes on the horizon, young ones, changes on the horizon. 

But Ruth—bless her Ruthiness and heart—having computed this news, launched from her chair and screamed as if we told her we are finally fucking going to Disneyland. (Which we will soon, honey. I promise promise.) She did this old-timer heel-kick jig repeating yes yes yes yes yes!!!

And I thought that's how I want to feel. That's how we all deserve to feel after all this.



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