After 14 months of looking like Old West train robbers, Northern Nevadans are slowly shedding their masks in public.
In the first week following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s May 13 announcement that fully-vaccinated people no longer had to wear masks indoors, covered faces were still ubiquitous in local businesses, and, even outdoors. By May 22, nine days after the CDC’s guidance, residents and businesses reported they are seeing a larger percentage of bare faces indoors and out.
“People need time to adapt,” said Andrea Johnson, a licensed clinical professional counselor and co-founder of Reno Counseling Collective. “Just getting the vaccine in your arm didn’t just flip a switch and sweep the stress away. We’re all still full of uncertainty… When we’re anxious, we try even harder to hang on to our routines.”
Jake Wiskerchen, a marriage and family therapist and counselor who is founder and CEO of Zephyr Wellness, said he had trouble believing the people who spent their whole lives without wearing masks would become so acclimated to donning them in just 14 months. “But it makes complete sense,” he said. “People get a certain messaging, they believe it, and then something changes and they are slow to adapt.”
According to the CDC, it is safe for fully vaccinated people to stop wearing masks in most indoor and outdoor settings. “Fully vaccinated” means it has been two weeks since a person received the second dose of Pfizer or Moderna or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Warning signs come down
In the Truckee Meadows, drug stores, many supermarkets and some other businesses still require the face-coverings. Many smaller shops have taken down their “masks required” signs, but often the employees inside are still wearing them. Big-box stores, including Costco, Target and Walmart were among the first to ditch the requirement for customers.
Even so, a walk through the Walmart store at North McCarran Boulevard and Mae Ann Avenue in Reno between 3 and 3:20 p.m. on May 22, revealed that more than half the customers inside still sported face coverings. Across the parking lot at a Doughboy’s Doughnuts store, where masks are no longer required, a masked clerk reported that about 40 percent of customers were still wearing them.
“I’m vaccinated, but I feel a little more secure when I’m wearing it,” said Alice Bartholomew, who stopped by the store for some pastries. “You don’t know who is and who isn’t vaccinated and the pandemic isn’t over. I think it will take a while before I’m comfortable (indoors) without one.”
Of six people who were wearing masks in stores in or near the Walmart store May 22, all said they had been fully vaccinated. Of six other people questioned who weren’t wearing face coverings, four said they had been vaccinated and two declined to answer the question for “privacy” reasons.
Nationwide, about 60% of Americans have received at least one vaccine shot. More than 45 percent of Washoe County residents over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated, according to Washoe County Health District.
Wiskerchen, of Zephyr Wellness, said although people’s hesitancy to go without the face coverings is understandable, it’s more of an emotional response than a reasoned reaction to the CDC’s guidance. “We all pivoted pretty fast in March 2020 to self-isolation, wearing masks and social distancing,” he said. “So I would ask, ‘can you trust (the science) now?’”
But he said the change in guidelines took some people by surprise, even though the population was moving toward herd immunity for months. Some of those who haven’t yet been inoculated also distrust the way the vaccine was developed so fast, he said, even though the technology that made the mRNA shots effective has been around since the 1970s.
Following the crowd
“The pandemic hit so suddenly, with so much death and destruction and the testimonials were so emotional and impactful, it’s just hard to believe that we’re safe just because of a little stab in the arm,” Wiskerchen said. “It was such a tsunami of emotion and experience.”
As more people got the shots, he said, others saw that the vaccines were safe. In terms of ditching masks, “what we need is more conversation, human-to-human, that’s what changed minds with the vaccine, not authority (telling people to get them),” he said.
Wiskerchen said he doesn’t wear a mask except in places where it’s still required and he carries his vaccine card with him. Research indicates that fully-vaccinated people have only a minuscule chance of catching COVID-19 and data so far indicate they don’t spread the virus. “I’ve got no problem in being in close quarters with people who haven’t been vaccinated,” he said, noting that there’s no way to be sure who got the shots. “It’s going to be that way from now on.”
Some of the Reno residents who were interviewed while wearing masks May 22, said they look around when entering a business to see what other patrons are doing. “If I’m in a room where people are wearing them, I’ll put mine on even if I came in without it,” said Bob Maradona of Sparks. “I guess I don’t want to be the odd man out.” He said in that situation he also worries people will mistake him for a vaccine denier.
Johnson, of the Reno Counseling Collective, said that most people are very sensitive to social norms.
“We want to look around and see what other people are doing; who do I look at to follow that norm?” she said. “There can be a lot of confusion. The CDC recommendation was based on data, but it did seem like it was out of the blue. We all have fears and the need for safety and security. What’s hard is that what you see as a norm for safety is not what everybody else sees; what’s right for you may not be right for me.”
Although there’s been a lot written about “mask shaming,” either for or against still wearing the face coverings, Johnson said she hasn’t seen that occur. “When that does happen, it is most likely not from strangers, but people close to you. If you are doing something contrary to what they are feeling, people in your immediate sphere of connections may want you to change to match themselves.”
At the Legislature, lawmakers must be fully vaccinated to be allowed on the Assembly floor. Two Republican lawmakers — Assemblywomen Annie Black of Clark County and Jill Dickman of Sparks — refused to say whether they got the shots. On May 20th, they were banned from the chamber and stripped of their right to vote on measures until they explain their positions and apologize for ignoring the rule.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, which continues to distribute vaccines, on May 19 urged tribal members to continue wearing masks.
Anxiety is common
Although the COVID-19 precautions were in place for a just small portion of people‘s lives, Johnson said, the impact was memorable. “For 14 months masks were very important. They are in our pockets and cars, baskets of them are in our houses. We always had one near us so it became the new norm… Now we are shifting back to our old selves and that change is hard.”
Those who are anxious about shedding the masks, she said, should find trusted people they can talk to. “Often people feel that they are the only ones that feel a certain way, but in reality if you are feeling it probably a lot of other people are feeling the same way. If you feel that connection and commonality, it’s a lot easier,” she said.
Johnson said respecting other people’s choices and boundaries is important during the transition period. “Be OK where other people are at,” she said. “Care for the people around you and it will be easier to create the new norm. Safety is going to look different for different people.”
Wiskerchen said some people’s choices may seem illogical – such as those he sees walking their dogs while wearing masks with no other person anywhere near them. Still, he said, people should think for themselves and not be concerned about other folks’ actions.
“We’re still in charge of ourselves,” he said. “If you don’t believe you’re safe, do whatever it takes. But there’s no more compulsion, so you can re-take charge of your life. If you don’t want to be around people who are unmasked, give them a wide berth. If you don’t like businesses’ mask policy, talk to the manager, vote with your wallet and vote with your feet.”
The tide will turn
For more than a year, Wiskerchen said, “we were essentially turning over power; we were told how and when to operate and under what conditions. Now we have those choices back, and that almost brings in a self doubt: do I have the information to go about my life as I used to?
“Getting that authority returned to us can be a bit unnerving, too.”
He said people’s hesitancy to be unmasked indoors will fall off over time.
“It’s not my place to wonder why someone is or is not wearing one,” he said. “Focus on you and do what meets your own level of comfort. I think we’ll get there sooner rather than later. Masks are kind of annoying and people will be glad to get rid of them.”