Are people being shamed for wanting to continue wearing masks?

Two face masks hanging off a rear view mirror
Photo via Ivan Radic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: July 20, 2021

The world has been mired in the COVID-19 pandemic for more than a year. In the United States, that period has been marked by a constant battle over masks, as a portion of the population refuses expert advice and shuns mask-wearing mandates. Rising vaccinations have led to eased restrictions around the country, but not everyone is comfortable shedding the masks quite yet. This has resulted in a rise in instances of “mask shaming,” as people find themselves targeted for their continued use of face coverings.

Mask shaming is nothing new. It has merely shifted targets.

Since the early days of the pandemic, people who refuse to wear masks have been the target of ridicule and outrage. They’ve been denied service in cities around the world, as people continue to require safety measures in public spaces. Experts established more than a year ago that mask-wearing is a simple, inexpensive, and respectful way to protect yourself and those around you. In the midst of a global pandemic, it was broadly labeled as selfish to refuse.

This judgment still runs rampant, which puts people in an odd position as restrictions loosen.

Those who’ve received their vaccine can unmask in most public spaces, but there is broad confusion about how to determine who is and who isn’t vaccinated. When people pass a maskless face at the store, it is difficult to determine whether they are an anti-masker or a vaccinated member of the community.

This has led to mass (or mask) confusion, eventually dragging mask-wearing people into the line of fire. 

Now, even those who choose to retain the mask despite their vaccinated status are experiencing mask shaming.

“Oftentimes when mask shaming is happening, it’s because of that person’s own internalized fears,” Andrea Johnson, the co-founder of the Reno Counseling Collective in Nevada, told News 4. “Their fear is coming out in how they’re shaming other people. So, we might feel the need to shame that person because we want them to fit into our ideals of what we see as safe and appropriate.”

Many people continue to think it is too early to drop mask-wearing restrictions and feel far safer with a covering in place. Plus, a poll taken in June 2021 showed that 41% of people continued wearing masks even after the CDC loosened its guidance. By mid-July, the talk of mask mandates returning was picking up steam, as the delta variant was causing COVID rates to rise again.

But those who resist restrictions find wearing a mask, particularly post-vaccination, to be superfluous and absurd.

As Dr. Umair Shah, Washington state’s secretary of health, said, people should “respect the rules of the room you’re in.”

Or perhaps practice a bit of empathy. ”People just don’t always know your situation and they’re quick to assume,” Karen Hillman, a medical receptionist at the Genesee Community Health Center in Michigan, told ABC 12. “If I wear my mask, then they assume I’m not vaccinated. But then if I’m out in public without my mask, you don’t know.”

People then find themselves at an impasse. Wear a covering and face mask shaming for what some consider excessive caution? Or ditch the mask and be confused with incautious anti-maskers? There isn’t an easy answer, but several people interviewed by NBC Boston saw the same route to a solution: stop being so judgmental. 

Said Nazzareth Tavarez: “We want to shame them for wearing a mask, we want to shame them for not wearing a mask, and, you know, it’s ridiculous.”

Sources: NBC Boston, Seattle Times

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