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The CDC just put masks on the honor system. Are we up to the challenge?

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Two pedestrians — one with a mask and the other without — pass each other in Salt Lake City.

Two pedestrians — one with a mask and the other without — pass each other in Salt Lake City on Friday, May 14, 2021. The Mask mandate has lifted. Federal guidelines say masks are no longer needed in most situations for Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wants to put Americans on the honor system. 

Are we honorable enough for that?

If you have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you “can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” according to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky. That is, unless local laws or business policies tell you otherwise.

And if you aren’t fully vaccinated? Keep wearing your mask. 

Oh, and by the way, no one will know if you’re being honest. The idea of requiring people to show a vaccine passport of some kind seems to be dying a merciful death before anyone has time to paint a protest sign. Given laws about medical privacy, showing a proof of vaccination may be problematic, anyway.

Walmart, Target, Costco and several other retailers made similar announcements last week. Had your shot(s)? Don’t wear a mask. Haven’t had them? Please do.

So, where does that leave us? Either health officials have calculated that so many people have been vaccinated that we won’t see any large outbreaks, or they are trusting a health crisis to the basic honesty of Americans who already have divided themselves along bitter, sometimes violent political mask lines.

A basic moral question looms over all of this. If you haven’t been vaccinated and you don’t wear a mask, what sort of a lie is that? Is it a white lie that doesn’t hurt anybody? Is it not a lie at all because you believe health officials and politicians were lying about the need to wear masks in the first place — sort of a one-lie-deserves-another thing? Is it a lie of convenience, just because you’re tired of it all?

Alternatively, is it a source of frustration, because now your decision to not wear a mask loses its punch as a political statement? Now, the assumption will be that you have submitted to mainstream science. What’s a nonconformist to do?

A Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll in May found that 10% of registered voters in Utah weren’t necessarily opposed to vaccines but were in no rush to get one. Will this new maskless honor system prod them to be in more of a rush, figuring their odds of getting infected will rise?

Those are just the basic questions. Behind them looms an even larger one: Just how honest are Americans, anyway?

The answer seems to be that it depends.

Todd Geisert would likely give you a big thumbs up. He runs a farm standalong Old Highway 100 in Missouri, where he sells fresh vegetables, along with bratwurst and pork burgers out of a freezer, without anyone behind a cash register. He just leaves a black box and asks people to pay on the honor system.

According to various news reports, it works, mostly. Usually, the money comes out about right, but he has had to install a security camera because of thefts, as he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a few years ago.

You also should consider the dropped-wallet experiments. The journal Science published the results of a three-year study, in which researchers intentionally dropped more than 17,000 wallets containing various sums of cash in 355 cities across 40 countries. To their surprise, the wallets containing the most money were more likely to be returned than those with smaller amounts.

In the United States, England and Poland, wallets containing $94.15 were returned 72% of the time, compared to 61% for those containing $13.45 and only 46% for those containing no cash at all.

But my guess is that, for whatever, reason, finding someone’s wallet evokes greater feelings of empathy and compassion than the possibility of wearing a mask to keep others, or yourself, from catching a virus no one can see.

Kang Lee, a professor at the University of Toronto whose specialty is the study of honesty, told USA Today, “It’s very, very likely people are going to lie (about vaccinations) … because there’s no verification system and no punishment.”

The only punishment would be a guilty conscience. 

A cavern of motivations separate the feeling that someone is forcing you to wear a mask from an honor system that puts the burden of honesty squarely on your own shoulders. 

Are we up to it?