For the nearly 40% of Americans who are vaccinated against COVID-19, the whole world changed with the CDC’s announcement Thursday that post-vaccination studies and five months of real-world data demonstrated that it's safe to strip off our masks go back to our normal lives.
It’s an exciting moment after more than a year of precautions, a moment we should celebrate as the triumph of amazingly effective vaccines whose breathtakingly rapid development we could not reasonably have hoped for at this time last year.
But it’s also a difficult moment, because most people still aren’t vaccinated, including more than two-thirds of us in South Carolina. So we are left struggling to find a way absent broader masking recommendations to convince more people to get vaccinated and to reduce the danger of overwhelming our hospitals and encouraging vaccine-resistant mutations when the unvaccinated inevitably start taking more risks.
It’s a moment made more difficult by the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sprung the new recommendations on us — after teaching us to expect a gradual pullback — rather than preparing us for months in advance. It’s only in retrospect that the sudden change of guidance makes sense: The CDC was ready to make a light-switch decision the moment it was satisfied with the evidence that the vaccines really are as effective as expected, not only in preventing serious illness but also in preventing transmission and even infection.
Like the rest of the federal government, the CDC never required anybody to do anything. It issued recommendations and guidelines — just like it does about smoking and diet and exercise — based on science and on the extremely conservative approach to disease prevention that it’s the CDC’s job to take.
Depending on the situation, the question about what to do with that guidance always has been up to state and local governments, individual businesses and nonprofits and individuals.
Of course, the question of what governments in South Carolina will do with the new guidance is moot since Gov. Henry McMaster used his emergency powers last week to strip away their power to require masks, even in schools, where most students don’t even have the option of being vaccinated yet.
And the absence of any government requirements makes a difficult decision even more difficult for everyone else. Businesses and nonprofits that continue to require everyone to wear masks can expect even more belligerency from people who have always considered masks unnecessary. And those that decide to let fully vaccinated people remove their masks know they can’t tell who is and isn't vaccinated — unless they require proof that most understandably would not want to do — so they will effectively be inviting everyone to go maskless.
The idea that the number of unvaccinated people without masks will climb makes us uncomfortable, given how many people that could be with our low vaccination rate. We can only hope it also makes unvaccinated people uncomfortable — and pushes them to get vaccinated.
Like the CDC, we hope employers will make it easier for unvaccinated employees to get the vaccine, and that more people will do that. We hope that all of us will continue — or start — to act as ambassadors in our own families and communities, encouraging others to get vaccinated, and perhaps even offering to help.
Finally, we would urge everyone to let this moment of confusion and evolving requirements and expectations serve as a reset against a sickness even more dangerous than COVID-19.
Those of us who support public-health restrictions can no longer assume that the unmasked people we encounter are anti-social virus spreaders. So we need to stop thinking of them that way.
And with the inevitable easing of even business restrictions, which we've already seen, those who bristle against the idea of taking precautions are no longer being told what to do. So they need to stop being angry about that.
And here’s a really radical idea: What if we all tried taking a vacation from this whole idea of being angry all the time? Who knows? We might learn that it’s much more pleasant — and healthy — that way.