It’s the standard educated-but-edgy hot take on masks: They’re here to stay. The most recognizable symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic will carry over beyond this year, becoming a part of our everyday lives.
This argument is flawed. Masks are not here to stay, and will be gone within the next four months. We will not be wearing masks once this pandemic is over.
At the heart of the argument that says masks will stay post-pandemic is the idea of path dependency — that because something has happened in the past, it will stay because of a resistance to change. It’s a valid argument, and a popular theory in political science.
It also may end up being true for many parts of our pandemic life. There is likely to be many companies that never return to the office, and an increase in online learning from what we saw before the pandemic. (In New Hampshire, there’s even a charter school that offers high school degrees entirely online.)
There are other innovations that will likely follow the model of path dependency and remain in our lives for years to come. Zoom will remain popular for virtual meetings. Government support, like stimulus checks, will become more of a norm.
I’m sure people will also be more cautious to go out in public when they’re sick, and may even start wearing masks when doing so.
But the idea that masks will become a permanent installment in our lives, regardless of whether someone is sick or not, is absurd.
Even though other countries have long adopted wearing masks in public as a cultural norm, this is something that will not become the norm in America. That’s not to say mask wearing wouldn’t help limit the spread of infectious diseases like the common cold or influenza. It’s just not something that’s going to happen.
Whereas other pandemic developments are seen as innovations — the at-home workplace, for example — masks are not in the same category. For better or for worse, they were always viewed as a restriction, not an innovation.
As such, when we talk about lifting social distancing or capacity restrictions, we inherently discuss mask restrictions, too. It’s viewed as one and the same — a hindrance on the quality of our everyday lives.
And even though masks do have public health benefits, they are a cosmetic hindrance. They’re uncomfortable. They make it harder to communicate. They remind us of the pain of the pandemic.
In a post-pandemic world, masks will be the first thing abandoned by Americans. We’re already seeing this, as the CDC releases new guidance indicating that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks outside in most circumstances.
For better or for worse, masks will not be part of our long-term future.
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