Are Americans wearing masks? The USA TODAY Opinion team talks about it as COVID cases rise.

·9 min read

The United States has passed 1 million COVID-19 deaths, more than any other nation, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. As we headed toward this tragic milestone (and the uptick in cases that has accompanied it), state mask mandates across the nation have dropped.

Members of USA TODAY's Opinion team started working remotely when the pandemic hit. We still are. We live all across the country. And just like you, we have different views on the importance of masking, different personal experiences that prompt fears (or not) and observations about the different approaches in our cities and towns.

Below are first-person accounts from members of USA TODAY Opinion. What are you seeing? What are you doing? And where do you think the nation needs to go? Join the conversation on our Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages.

A security worker stands by sign reminding travelers to wear face masks at Amsterdam Schiphol airport on December 2, 2021 in the Netherlands.
A security worker stands by sign reminding travelers to wear face masks at Amsterdam Schiphol airport on December 2, 2021 in the Netherlands.

We need lessons in risk management

Tim Swarens, deputy Opinion editor

The pandemic has been one long, hard lesson in risk management. And far too often we've failed.

Here's a fact: Wearing a mask will help reduce the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

That shouldn't be in dispute by this point. It shouldn't be controversial. And it certainly shouldn't be seen as some kind of political gang sign. "Hey, I'm wearing a mask (or not). I'm on the 'right' side of this debate, unlike those other fools."

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But, sadly, for far too many Americans, wearing a mask became a way to signal their political and social positions – and not a simple if imperfect way to lower the risk of catching a dangerous disease.

My hope from Indiana, now that the pandemic is finally fading, is that we'll stop poking fingers at one another long enough to think about how we keep political viewpoints – and all of the self-righteousness and condemnation of others that come with them – out of public health.

The pandemic was always going to be bad in a nation of 332.7 million people, where 1 in 6 are older than 65, more than 4 in 10 adults are obese and 1 in 8 adults smoke cigarettes.

But it didn't have to be this bad.

Why my mask is staying on

Jaden Amos, digital producer  

I live in Brooklyn, New York, and people are still wearing masks here – including me. Recently, though, people have been dropping masks in stores and on transit, even though masks are required on public transportation. I was sick several weeks ago – not with COVID-19 – after spending a weekend at tightly packed bars and restaurants.

Jaden Amos
Jaden Amos

Honestly, it somewhat scared me to be so sick. I don't have any family in New York City or on the East Coast. Luckily a friend was able to help me a bit, but if I were to get seriously sick for weeks, I would struggle to find someone to rely on. COVID cases are climbing again in the city, so I'll probably avoid bars, clubs and eating inside for a bit. My mask will also stay on in stores and on transit.

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Several of my friends who've had COVID-19 are experiencing long COVID symptoms, and I don't want it to happen to me. I also just don't like being sick, and if wearing a mask on my face for the 30 minutes I'm in Trader Joe's can help prevent that, then I'm going to do it. I am understanding of others who don't want to wear masks, but I will keep wearing mine.

Masking is not just a personal decision

Eileen Rivers, projects editor

I've been sick a good part of 2021 and 2022. Not with COVID, but with some serious illnesses that put me out of commission for extended periods of time. I spent about a month in the hospital in 2021, and a week in the hospital this year. The thought of being around folks without masks (or loosening up on social distancing protocols) has left me feeling terrified. I'm sure I'm not the only person who has dealt with serious illness recently who feels this way. So it's easy to see how I was behind the eight ball two weeks ago when, for the first time, I walked into a few stores unmasked in Maryland (the mask mandate was lifted for state buildings in February).

Eileen Rivers
Eileen Rivers

All the stores were empty when I entered (I made sure of that). I was joined by one other customer in one, and I promptly left. I waited in line for a chai at Starbucks, socially distanced from just a few other people. In the outdoor shopping center, I saw no one (aside from the occasional store clerk and servers), wearing a mask. Why did I decide to shop without mine? Because I'd just had lunch with a friend, and eating while masked is impossible. But I haven't been shopping without a mask since, and I won't be.

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I'm better now, well on my way to full recovery. But what folks who fight against masking don't seem to realize, is that the decision to mask or not to mask (especially as COVID cases rise again) isn't just about them. It's about their elderly neighbors and people with preexisting conditions who are trying to stay safe. It's also about people like me. I don't have preexisting conditions, but I have been sick. I'm tired of being hospitalized and am trying incredibly hard not to be again.

Don't succumb to unreasonable expectations

Steven Porter, assistant Opinion editor

Just a few months ago, my neighbors and I here in the Seacoast of New Hampshire wore our masks religiously. But as the omicron variant wave subsided, there seemed to be a collective recognition that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. So the masks came off.

I didn't rip that cloth patch from my face and wave it around in celebration like some buffoon who mistakes inconvenience for oppression. No, I recognized that I could be a responsible member of my community without keeping my nose and mouth covered at all times. I've been vaccinated. I wash my hands. I keep my distance. Even at the grocery store, it's fairly easy to give people their space around here.

I always carry a mask, folded once, in the back left pocket of my pants. If I'm going someplace where face coverings are required or expected, then I put it on without complaint. Otherwise, it stays in my pocket.

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I promise to never look sideways at someone who chooses to wear a medical mask in a space where I think it's unnecessary. Their decision reflects their own assessment of the current threat level and their tolerance for risk. I don't know what health conditions they may have. I don't know who they are caring for at home.

As I see it, those of us who have taken COVID-19 seriously have been adapting our strategies in response to shifting circumstances, and I figure we'll keep recalibrating for months, perhaps years, to come. But I hope we can agree that our shared task – what we owe to each other – is risk mitigation, not risk elimination. I don't think it would be reasonable or wise to insist that every member of our society practice social distancing in perpetuity. The same goes for masks.

Maskless heathens of the Midwest

Rex Huppke, columnist

It’s abundantly clear, here in Chicago and across the Midwest, that many folks are “done with COVID.” They’re out and about, they’re maskless and seemingly unconcerned with the fact that, once again, coronavirus case numbers are rising and the pandemic cares little about what we, the virus’ hosts, think.

Rex Huppke
Rex Huppke

In and around Chicago, I see masks on maybe half the people in indoor public spaces. On a recent swing through Wisconsin, the mask wearing was closer to zero.

I’m vaccinated, boosted and in good health. Still, my reaction upon entering a grocery store or Target filled with what I politely call maskless heathens is: AUUUUGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!

That is usually followed in short order by: GRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!

The pandemic is not over. According to the Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, more than 11,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 in the past month. We recently crossed the grim threshold of 1 million deaths since the start of the pandemic.

People like me – healthy, vaccinated and boosted – are free to live our lives with limited worry about dying from COVID-19, and that’s fantastic. But masks remain a necessary and helpful tool to protect everyone.

When I see unmasked shoppers, moviegoers and people in restaurant waiting areas, I bristle. I growl. And one word comes to mind: selfish.

It's really OK to wear a mask if you're hacking and sneezing indoors

Carli Pierson, Opinion writer

On a recent trip to see my father in South Florida the plane was full of people hacking, coughing and sneezing: None of them wore masks. So, I doubled up on mine. I didn't want to bring anything to my father who is 74 and who I hadn't seen in three years. Then, at a local supermarket in Fort Lauderdale, I counted how many people were wearing masks. Out of 100 people, only seven were wearing masks indoors.

Carli Pierson with her daughters in 2021.
Carli Pierson with her daughters in 2021.

That being said, I understand people's frustration and exhaustion with masking. If you're vaccinated, and boosted, and have no autoimmune disorder – I see no reason to mask unless you yourself are ill with some type of respiratory sickness. But if you are sick,  then take the one lesson we all learned during the pandemic: Wearing surgical-grade masks indoors helps prevent you from spreading your disease to other people. Medically speaking, this is not controversial at all. It's the ethical, neighborly thing to do.

I wish people would stop politicizing something that is basic science. I'm not sure, however, given the political climate in this country if people are able, or willing, to do that.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID masks - Should we still be covering our faces as cases spike?

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