Half-pandemic May

Today, Chicago and the state of Illinois lifted most remaining COVID-19 mitigation-related masking and social distancing requirements and capacity limits. It isn’t quite the end of an era, but it is a step forward.

But when I wrote a decent chunk of this post (on June 7), many of those limits were still in place, and Chicagoland region was caught in an interesting half-way state that had as much to do with people’s attitudes as anything that was formally required.

I’ve been Chicagoland specifically because the United States, for better or for worse, continues to be a patchwork of restrictions, regulations and approaches. For the past 12 months, I’ve been able to sit down in coffee shops in Kenosha (Wisconsin) and Michigan City (Indiana), but not in Chicago and most suburbs. Masking has also varied – as I mentioned before, Kenoshans really didn’t mask much until the fall 2020 surge in cases.

In the past two months, we saw two major developments.

In late April, CDC issued a recommendation stating that people don’t have to wear masks outdoors – though it still recommended that unvaccinated people wear masks in crowded outdoor settings. Then, on May 13, it recommended allowing vaccinated people to go maskless indoors, except in public transit, government buildings, hospitals and some other congregate settings. Illinois and Chicago specifically adjusted their respective regulations accordingly – which meant, in practice, that businesses and public institutions such as libraries could continue requiring everybody to wear masks, if they so chose.

Now, personally, it’s not like I ever wore masks outdoors 100% of the time to begin with. It made no sense for me to wear a mask when I’m walking in the evening at night on a completely empty street, or at a national park where the chance of me running into anyone… was pretty tiny. After I recovered from COVID-19, I still wore mask outdoors when there were people, because there was uncertainty about whether people with antibodies could still infect others. Even as research suggested that the chance was small, I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to keep masking.

As more and more people got vaccinated, the equation shifted some. Like, I met Grandma Nina without a mask two weeks after her second dose, because we all but certainly couldn’t infect each other now.

It was a bit surreal to go to the Metra station afterwards and see all the people in masks and realize that, oh yeah, the rest of the world was still the same.

After I got vaccinated, I got a bit more casual about not wearing masks. I didn’t wear it much on smaller streets with not a lot of people, but I wore it on the train and inside businesses/transit/public buildings/etc.

When CDC announced the new outdoor mask-wearing guidelines, there was a lot of Discourse on social media (mostly Twitter) about whether they should keep wearing mask. I could see why people who haven’t been vaccinated would be wary, but I was kind of bemused to see some vaccinated people saying that they would still keep wearing masks no matter what CDC says. And yeah, I also got a digital earful about how some people were more shell-shocked and traumatized by COVID-19 and wanted to play it cautious, and I tried to emphasize… but to me, the choice was clear. If CDC said it was okay for vaccinated people to go unmasked outdoors and the state/city officially allowed it, I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.

I should also add, for further context, that when the announcement came out, I quote-tweeted an anti-masker’s tweet and found myself bombarded with anti-masking agitprop. I haven’t experienced anything close to that since the Ukrainian Crisis, except this was even more intense than even that. One would think, from their tweets, that I was telling everyone to wear masks forever and ever. I was accused of endangering people, the same talking points got brought up over and over (and over and over, and over and over). What really got on my nerves wasn’t what they were saying – it was the relentless repetition. Arguing against it was pointless, since different people would just repeat the same arguments, and the process would continue, over and over (and over and over) again. After a while, I just kept wondering – did they think those tactics were going to persuade me? The only thing they convinced me of is that people care way too much about other people wearing pieces of cloth over the lower half of their face. Like, нашли о чём беситься.

With all of that in mind… it isn’t so much that I stopped wearing masks outdoors altogether, but I wore then even less than before. And, at first, most people kept on wearing masks. I have no idea how many of them, if any, were vaccinated at that point. I do know that many of them got way more than two meters out of the way when they saw my unmasked self – which did have one nice side-benefit.

Those who know me well may be aware that I have a deep phobia of dogs. Big, small, friendly or barking, it doesn’t matter. I learned to mostly be okay-ish around Laura’s dog back in the day, and I even kind of grew sort of fond-ish of Anna’s dog, Tucker. But I didn’t have any built-up toleration for the random dogs people took for walks.

So seeing many, but not all, dog owners scurry out of the way was actually pretty nice.

Now, as I said on Twitter at the time, it’s not like I kept my mask off every single moment I was outdoors. If I’m getting on the ‘L’ and then heading straight to the store, taking the mask off just for a few minutes in between didn’t make much sense. And sometimes, at least at first, when I disembarked from the ‘L’, I kept the mask on while walking home.

As April turned into May, I noticed that the number of people wearing masks outdoors was dropping. I have no way of knowing whether it was because more people got vaccinated, or because more people were comfortable not wearing masks outdoors – or, most likely, some combination of the two – but it was definitely a pattern.

But the floodgates really started to break at the announcement that vaccinated people didn’t have to wear masks in indoor settings (if the businesses/organizations didn’t decide to keep the blanket requirement).

Now, to me, it seemed like there’s a pretty easy way to handle the new regulations – ask people to present their vaccination cards and, if they can’t, require them to wear masks. I was legitimately surprised that practically nobody actually went with this, choosing to either (a) maintain a blanket masking requirement or (b) take people on their word. I mean, sure, vaccination cards can be faked, but it seemed like a better option than Option B.

Visiting Kenosha at the end of May was an interesting study of contrasts. By that point, a decent potion of Chicagoans I saw outdoors still wore masks, but in Kenosha, the majority didn’t wear masks at all. Only one (!) business I visited had a blanket requirement – the others took the approach of “wear the masks if you want, but we are not going to make you.” And I did ask at every single business I visited which one they would prefer. In one art gallery, I decided to keep the mask on just because the owner’s response had the not so subtle undercurrent of “I’d really like you to, but I really don’t want to have to deal with anti-masking nonsense” and I kind of felt sorry for him. In another, I kept the mask on because the owner did, and, based on the business’ Instagram feed, I felt that she would welcome mask-wearing. With the rest – if they said they were okay with me not wearing masks, who was I to argue?

At one shop, I ended up having a long conversation with the sales clerk, who told me about how she lived at one of Illinois towns near Illinois/Wisconsin border, and how Illinoisians from the area flocked to Kenosha because “they had everything open” months before Illinois did, and I thought about how different all the conversations about reopening must have felt to them, when the contrast was within a quick driving distance.

Through it all, I noticed that public transit has been getting busier. The pandemic kind of trained people to leave the seat next to them empty, just to ensure social distancing, but toward the end of May, I noticed that it started to break down. On Metra trains, the seats have been flipped to face each other to further encourage social distancing, but the commuter transit agency stopped doing that toward the end of May. On Memorial Day weekend, I saw more people riding Metra than at any point during the pandemic.

The beaches, which were (at least officially) closed last summer, officially reopened during the Memorial Day weekend, the way they usually would before the pandemic. Not many people wore masks on the beach – but then, that was the case last summer, too. There were definitely more people flocking to the beach, and going to a beach in Chicago during the daytime hours felt like an interesting novelty.

By that point, COVID-19 test positivity rates and hospitalizations continued to drop. By the time I started writing this post, they dropped past the summer lows. With that, the lifting of most restrictions seemed all but assured.

Starbucks, which closed its indoor seating during the fall 2020 surge, reopened indoor seating, but with gaps to maintain social distancing. Restaurants seemed busier than they have been in quite a while, both indoors and outdoors, but waiters still wore masks (even as it seemed like none of the customers did). And the number of people wearing masks outdoors continued to drop.

The dog owners don’t go out of the way to avoid me anymore. I suppose you win some, you lose some.

By late May, another factor entered my mask calculation – the temperatures got warm enough that I started to really sweat under the masks. Whereas before, taking off the mask while walking outside for a few minutes seemed silly, when weather reached 95F/35C, it felt expedient. Especially when one had to stay hydrated.

It has been interesting to observe some tiny adjustments. When my mom moved to Chicago and my family were in the same place for the first time since the pandemic, things easily fell into place. But when one of the writing groups I’m part of met outdoors IRL for the first time in months, when all of us were vaccinated, it was a bit odd to realize that I didn’t have to care about sitting two meters apart anymore. Things still fell back into place, but it took a bit longer.

Today’s reopening doesn’t remove all the restrictions. Customers who aren’t vaccinated still have to wear masks indoors, and businesses and government institutions can still maintain blanket mask requirements. But capacity limits and social distancing requirements are gone, so restaurants and businesses can have as many people as they want. Festivals can resume. Like I said, that’s still a step forward.

I don’t especially mind still wearing a mask in businesses that require it, or on public transit and some such. Like I said, the Attack of Rabid Anti-maskers kind of drove home that raising a fuss about it is silly, and it’s not like they would hurt most people.

As I’m finishing up this post in the middle of the Old Orchard Mall, I notice that, while many people aren’t wearing masks, many people still do. Some of those mask-wearers may be vaccinated, some may not – and even for those who are vaccinated, it ultimately comes down to the comfort level, and the change in mitigation measures isn’t going to change that, at least not overnight.

In the end of the day, we shouldn’t lose sight of what’s most important – getting people vaccinated. The more people are vaccinated, the fewer people the virus has to infect, and the fewer opportunities there are for mutations to grow into more dangerous strains. If there is one thing I am worried about, it’s that the related mitigation measures would take the urgency off vaccinations.

But I also hope that the prospect of walking around unmasked, of visiting businesses unmasked, of attending festivals unmasked, will balance it out.

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