Feb. 23, 2022 — Last week, public health officials implored fans at the Super Bowl to mask up in the packed Southern California stadium, handing out high-quality KN95 masks as jersey-donned patrons piled into their seats. Still, as cameras panned the audience, finding someone wearing a mask felt more like a game of Where’s Waldo. Even Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti failed to heed the warnings.
The Super Bowl has marked the beginning of an easing of COVID-19 protections across the nation, and many people seem ready to move on.
“Numbers are coming down, and it is time to adapt,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said as she announced the lifting of restrictions in her state.
While Omicron numbers are dropping in many parts of the country, for me, the pandemic isn’t in the rearview mirror just yet. COVID is still making people sick, putting them in the hospital, and taking their lives. It’s still keeping kids who need to be learning in person at home, and it’s still making life for the immunocompromised hard to tolerate.
I have an unvaccinated 2-year-old to protect and a 78-year-old mother with asthma. And it seems premature to part with the protections that have kept my family safe up until now. Masking doesn’t exactly show off my assets. While my husband’s baby blues and mile-long lashes shine through his face covering, I’m left with underwhelming peepers and forehead wrinkles. Even if I’m the sole masked patron at Target, I’ll be in my trusty KN95 for the time being.
While I’m not quite ready to saddle up with a cocktail at a crowded bar or file into my favorite music venue with thousands of others, it doesn’t mean I won’t be in the future.
James Jackson, PsyD, a psychiatrist with the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, says I’m not alone in feeling this way. He’s hearing a similar reluctance in a number of his patients.
“I have a lot of patients who are really struggling with this,” he says. “Some of them have a profound amount of anxiety right now.”
Many of his patients who didn’t have anxiety before the pandemic now are grappling with constant worries. And some of those previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are paralyzed with fear. Many patients who battled serious COVID or know someone who has gotten very sick or died from the disease aren’t yet ready to face a world without protections, says Jackson, who is also director of a Vanderbilt clinic that treats people with long COVID.
“They’re terrified,” he says. “And some percentage of them may decide to get another job, rather than go back to work in person, or homeschool their kids instead of returning to a school without mask mandates. People have been so jarred by this, and that’s not just going away.”
This apprehension can be heightened when COVID-19 protections are lifted abruptly, especially in communities where there are still high case counts. Jennifer Lisher, a single mom from Charleston, SC, says she is startled by the race to lift mandates. Though South Carolina has had relatively few COVID-19 safety recommendations, a bright spot has been her daughter’s school mask mandate. Last year, she pulled her first grader out of one school and enrolled her in a private school largely because of its mask mandate.
“You can be careful with everything else — getting groceries delivered, eating outside, avoiding indoor events — but kids need to be in school,” says Lisher.
Charleston County’s COVID-19 transmission rate remains high, according to the state health department, although its 7-day positive rate was “moderate” at 6.5% for the week ending Feb. 21.
Knowing her daughter was protected made it worth the expensive tuition payments. But last week, the school’s administrator sent an unwelcome message: The school’s mask mandate would be lifted, without warning, starting the next day.
“It came out of nowhere. It’s disappointing and frustrating, and it doesn’t make sense because we’ve recently had positive cases in the school,” says Lisher. “I would be comfortable with the school eventually lifting mask mandates if the percent positive rate in our community wasn’t still so high.”
But masking isn’t the largest concern for everyone. Others are bothered by the potential lifting of vaccination requirements in places like New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Amy Shefrin, a health policy consultant living in Brooklyn, NY, hopes these protections will stay in place. She thinks masking restrictions can be eased if vaccination status is required.
“I believed in masks when we didn’t have vaccines, and now I believe in vaccines as a way to return to normalcy,” she says. “I see a future in New York City without mask mandates, but only because we have high vaccination rates and requirements that people show vaccination cards, and I can’t imagine living somewhere without them.”
Whether you’re nervous about the lifting of mask mandates, vaccine requirements, or you’re just a little socially rusty, COVID anxiety comes in all shapes and sizes. And according to Jackson, it’s about finding a way to deal with it without completely isolating yourself. It’s about honoring your anxiety without taking it to an extreme.
For me, that means returning to indoor dining and maybe a trip to the cinema in the near future. But a stadium full of 70,000 unmasked super fans — let’s just say this year my Super Bowl festivities were a much more scaled-down affair.