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Perspective: Goodbye, ‘forever’ mask

Anti-maskers rejoiced over news that mask mandates didn’t work. Will the last person wearing a mask please keep it out of the landfill?

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A young woman wears a KN95 mask in downtown Salt Lake City on Jan. 26, 2022.

A young woman wears a KN95 mask in downtown Salt Lake City on Jan. 26, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

It was only a year ago that some Americans were talking about wearing masks forever, becoming a society where it is normal to wear face coverings when we shop for groceries or go the gym, even after the urgent threat of COVID-19 was past.

Then it became clear that COVID-19 would not ever be “past,” and there was talk of a “permanent pandemic,” giving the forever-mask advocates even more reason to keep covering up.

Remnants of this mindset remain. Although last fall the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped its recommendation for universal masking at health care facilities, before a doctor’s appointment this month I had to do a phone COVID-19 screening while still in my car and then, although I reported no symptoms, wear a mask the entire time I was inside — just like in 2020.

I was there for a shoulder injury.

It is this sort of experience that is widely mocked on social media and has contributed to deteriorating trust in health care providers and institutions. According to Pew Research Center, the share of Americans who say they have a “great deal of confidence” in medical scientists acting in their best interest has plunged 11 percentage points since 2020.

It’s a startling turnaround in a country that just 212 years ago was buying socks and cupcakes with the likeness of Dr. Anthony Fauci.

But you can trust doctors and scientists and still believe it’s past time to throw away the masks; most people had done so even before New York Times columnist Bret Stephens proclaimed that, at a population level, “Mask mandates were a bust.”

Stephens was writing about a comprehensive analysis of studies, published last month, that examined the effectiveness of masking and other interventions “to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses.” The study authors concluded, in part, “There is uncertainty about the effects of face masks” and said, in what can be called the money quote, “The pooled results of (randomized controlled trials) did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infection with the use of medical/surgical masks.”

Anti-mask Twitter was triumphant.

Critics have said Stephens cherry-picked his conclusions without enough regard for another of the authors’ points, which is that the effectiveness of masks cannot be accurately measured without also measuring how well and often people actually wore masks — as the authors’ put it, “the concomitant measures of mask adherence.” In other words, the presence of mask mandates did not necessarily result in perfect compliance. As such, journalist Kurt Eichenwald tweeted that the column was “absolutely reckless and wrong.”

To be fair, Stephens made clear that, according to research, the mask mandates did not work, not that masks did not work. The analysis, he wrote, “does not prove that proper masks, properly worn, had no benefit at an individual level.”

No matter. Once published, the column flowed through social media as “The New York Times admits that masks didn’t work,” which would have marked the end of the forever mask, except that the forever mask was already done.

Although co-host Sara Haines said last year on “The View” that she hoped masking in crowds would be the new normal, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone wearing a mask at the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City last week; one person who was there told me he “didn’t see a single soul wearing one.”

Likewise, the Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, was pretty much mask-free. Even at the Super Bowl in 2022, when masks were officially required, people were bare-faced for myriad reasons, to include skepticism of masks’ effectiveness, anger at their effects on children and simple ennui. Masks were once kind of fun (you could get them with the emblem of your favorite sports team). Now they’re just something else to argue about.

Meanwhile, disposable masks were becoming another worrisome form of waste, with more than 28 million winding up in landfills each year because of “excessive demand for face masks,” according to one report.

And if that’s not enough nails in the face mask coffin, there was last month’s study about the connection between “self-perceived facial attractiveness” and mask-wearing that prompted a U.K. tabloid to trumpet “Unattractive people are more likely to keep wearing face masks in post-Covid era.”

I don’t agree with conservative writer Scott Morefield, who says masks are an IQ test and “anyone wearing them or believing in them has failed, miserably.” Judge not, and all that. Many reasonable people will continue to keep a mask or two or 10 on hand, if only as a hopeful precaution against illness, like taking elderberry extract and extra vitamin C if someone in the family is sick. And when someone is sneezing next to me on a plane, the more layers between us, the better.

But the forever mask is dead, and the pandemic is not permanent — even the Biden administration has acknowledged as much.

The forever supply chain issues, however, are looking like a real possibility.