Masked, vaxxed, or both? Locals work through an awkward transition

Masks. It’s been four weeks since federal health officials announced that fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks. But many aren’t quite ready to let go.

Sparta /
| 07 Jun 2021 | 11:35

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendation allowing vaccinated people to ditch their masks caught many by surprise. For some, the news was welcome: finally, the opportunity to unveil the nether regions of their faces. But the skeptics feel Covid is still a threat, regardless of vaccination status.

Businesses scrambled to figure out whether to drop their mask requirements. Among the general public, confusion abounds.

Rosey Miller, a vaccinated Monroe, N.Y., resident and Straus News employee, expressed a common frustration. “I went to a clothing store the other day and was told to put on my mask or leave,” she said. “And then I walked down to another store, not even five minutes later, and a person working there yelled, ‘Why do you have that mask on your face?’”

Signs of our clumsy conversion can be found wherever you go: businesses with conflicting mask policies, the masked side-eyeing the non-masked, the vague sense of guilt over bare-facing it in the produce aisle.

Are we losing our minds?

Stay flexible

David Wenger, owner of Empire Diner in Monroe, N.Y., recently took down his sign requiring mask-wearing.

“If you want to wear a mask, that’s fine, and if you don’t want to wear a mask, that’s your prerogative,” said Wenger. “I respect anybody’s decision either way.”

He said his employees still wear masks and that he will reassess his decision after a month or two. “I don’t feel I have the right at this point to tell vaccinated people that are not my employees what to do,” he said. “But out of respect to my customers, I’m currently still having my staff wear them.”

Wenger himself keeps a mask in his pocket when visiting public places, just in case.

“I went to a store the other day and couldn’t find a sign, so I just put my mask on,” said Wenger. “Even when you’re somewhere where they’re allowing vaccinated people to let go of their masks, if I see someone who looks uncomfortable around me, I’ll just toss it on. There’s no ego with it.”

A good number of businesses have taken down their mandatory mask signs, while others have left them right where they always were. Some businesses opted to have all employees wear masks so as not to divide colleagues who did or didn’t get vaccinated. Others jumped at the opportunity to kill the cloth.

Kathryn Kaplan, owner of Garlic & Oil and Ava & Jack, both in Sparta, N.J., felt comfortable dropping her mask policy since all of her employees have been vaccinated.

“We do not wear masks but about 90 percent of people who come in do have them on,” Kaplan said. “So we always ask the customer if they would feel more comfortable if we put it on when they come in through the door.”

Kaplan and her staff wear their masks on a necklace chain, ready to put it on if a customer feels uncomfortable. Both stores still maintain their plexiglass barriers and sanitation stations.

“I haven’t had one customer tell me to put my mask on yet,” said Kaplan.

And although Kaplan feels safe without a mask in her own stores, she still wears one when visiting other indoor public places.

“I know it sounds a little hypocritical, but I don’t know how to get around that,” she said. “I feel comfortable in my store, but I’m just not 100 percent comfortable yet going out to other places and not knowing if they’re really being safe.”

No-mask anxiety

Melanie Rushnock, clinical supervisor at Lakeside Counseling Associates in Sussex County, N.J., said some people tell her the masks make them feel a little bit safer.

Rushnock is a mental health specialist who has seen, since the pandemic began, a surge of anxiety among her clients, who range from children to married couples.

“Unfortunately for a lot of other businesses, they’ve had to let go of employees, but we’ve been hiring therapists throughout the whole pandemic just to accommodate clients and expand services,” she said. “And now, with people going maskless, it’s increased anxiety for some clients who are just thinking about going to a store where no masks are being worn.”

“We’ve been encouraging clients to do what’s within their comfort level,” said Rushnock. “It’s an extremely difficult transition because everyone feels so differently, so we’ve just been trying to validate people’s decisions and telling clients they can make gradual change over time and evaluate how they’re feeling later on.”

Many vaccinated people say they prefer to “wait it out” because of still-unanswered questions, the biggest being: Can we trust that the maskless are vaccinated?

Kaplan echoed that feeling. “For now, I’m waiting and watching with a mask on, because who knows what people are doing?” she said.

‘Why am I being held hostage?’

Nearly 80 percent of the unvaccinated people who took our survey said they felt comfortable going into public places where the vaxxed weren’t masked.

Danny Berry of Warwick, N.Y., is a vaccinated police officer working at West Point Military Academy. He prefers to drop the mask when going out in public but sees no problem with vaccinated people continuing to wear masks.

“That’s a personal decision,” Berry said. “There’s probably going to be people who wear masks until the day they die. That’s just the way it is. When I leave the house, what do I look for? My car keys, my wallet, and my mask. It’s become part of our daily routine.”

He does have one qualm though.

“I still have to wear it at work, but about 90 percent of people I work with are vaccinated,” he said. “Why am I being held hostage by these people who won’t get vaccinated?”

The new CDC recommendation has been used as a way to entice more people to get the shot, a prime goal for many local and state governments. They’re trying some dramatic incentives, like a dinner date with the New Jersey governor and his wife, free drinks, or a chance to win the lottery.

“If I want a beer, I’ll just buy one,” said Kate DelCorpo, a Sussex, N.J., resident who has decided to forgo the vaccine.

DelCorpo works as a construction specialist in New Jersey and has pretty much maintained her normal life throughout the pandemic. She said she remains careful, wearing her mask and following sanitation procedures at work.

“I’m not prejudiced against people who want to continue wearing masks or are vaccinated, but I have noticed some paranoid and anxious-looking people,” DelCorpo said. “I’m just ready for it to be over.”

Rusty and rambling

The vaccinated will be emerging from their 14-month cocoon into a world where key questions remain about where and when to wear a mask. It’s been a tough transition.

“It’s such a bizarre thing because we’ve pretty much unlearned how to socialize,” Rushnock said. “We were told, ‘Don’t see, touch, or talk to people.’ And now we’re thrown into this new environment of socialization, and people don’t know what to do with themselves.”

Some Twitter users have expressed their qualms. “I honestly have so much anxiety about post-pandemic social interactions,” said one. “I really don’t know how I’ll handle large groups of people.”

As vaccinations ramp up and our social lives reboot, many of us are rusty, tongue-tied, rambling, or insecure — and it shows.

Rushnock said she’s getting clients with similar feelings of social anxiety, whether they’re college students, teachers, or senior citizens. Some have gotten so used to living virtually, returning to what once was normal doesn’t feel normal any more.

“It’s important to gradually expose yourself to social situations again, and evaluate how you feel,” Rushnock said.

That goes for anxiety over going maskless. “Don’t feel discouraged about not being ready,” she said. “Try to figure out your own comfort levels. Do it at your own pace.”

Straus News surveyed readers about their mask-wearing preferences. More than 720 people responded. Here’s what we found:
59% of vaccinated people said they would not feel comfortable going into public places without wearing a mask.
77% of unvaccinated people said they would feel comfortable going into public places where vaccinated people weren’t masked.
Most respondents said they would feel less anxious going to a grocery store or gym than to a concert or festival.
48% said they would prefer businesses to confirm vaccination status.
52% said they would not prefer businesses to confirm vaccination status.
“There’s probably going to be people who wear masks until the day they die. That’s just the way it is. When I leave the house, what do I look for? My car keys, my wallet, and my mask. It’s become part of our daily routine.” Danny Berry, Warwick, N.Y.