COVID fatigue is real: Countless Americans have relaxed their personal COVID-19 safety measures in recent weeks. Their rationales are as varied as their communities, which have experienced the pandemic in different degrees of severity and are in different phases of reopening.
“The choices governing social behaviors and safety protocols come down to mitigation of risk and what you decide is the right thing to do,” said MarkAlain Dery, medical director of infectious diseases and chief innovation officer for Access Health Louisiana. Even though top-level guidance from the CDC maintains that wearing masks and practicing social distancing are essential even in reopening states, many people are choosing to take their own approaches to COVID-19 safety practices based on necessity—or, in other cases, pure skepticism.
Dery said the federal government’s failure to provide a coordinated pandemic response and issue clear safety guidelines confused citizens. So did the fact that researchers are learning more about the novel coronavirus every day. That new information leads to updated recommendations and shifting safety protocols. As a result, people are likely to take cues from each other’s safety measures—or lack thereof—rather than public health officials. Without a clear sense of guidance, individual choices around COVID-19 safety measures come down to a personal cost-benefit analysis, and occasionally some tough calls.
When 26-year-old Long Island resident Véronique Ehamo broke her strict COVID-19 safety precautions in order to participate in a Manhattan protest against police brutality and white supremacy, the threat presented by COVID-19 was at the forefront of her mind. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of protestors who were singing, screaming, sweating and touching their faces, she feared COVID-19 infection—but for Ehamo and many others, that concern was subsumed by the fight for another kind of health protection: the preservation of Black lives.
“The passion was so strong we forgot we were actually in the middle of a pandemic,” Ehamo said. “What was more important was making sure our voices were heard… As a young Black woman from New York, I have firsthand experience with overt and covert racism on a daily basis. If standing in 80-degree weather in close proximity to thousands of people during a global pandemic can… have a lasting effect in mitigating the treatment of people of color in this country, then by all means.”
For some, the issues are based on more economic concerns. Manish Patel owns Tava Indian Street Food, a restaurant in a New Orleans food hall. The 32-year-old lives at home with his 60-something parents. To limit their exposure, he closed the restaurant for two months, using the restaurant instead to provide meals to front-line workers. On May 27, he reopened. Patel wears a mask and does his best to maintain social distancing, but the management of the food hall doesn’t enforce mask-wearing among customers, though it's suggested and recommended. Though Patel knows this exposure compromises his safety, he doesn’t feel he has much choice.
“I lease a small space,” Patel said. “Because my business is in a food hall, I don’t have control over the general rules of the market.”
Patel said it’s “awkward” when customers order in person without wearing masks, but he maintains a professional demeanor. “I treat them no different because, at the end of the day, I have to run a business.”
People from hard-hit epicenters of the pandemic like New York and New Orleans are likely to have firsthand experience with (and a healthy fear of) COVID-19. In smaller communities with no or low case counts, coronavirus can seem less like a threat and more like a vague, media-driven concept.
When VICE spoke to Jennifer Simpson on June 1, the 38-year-old high school teacher and mother of two in Katy, Texas didn’t know anybody who had gotten sick. There were only eight reported COVID-19 deaths in her area. She had relaxed her safety measures, shifting from observing the stay-at-home order to getting pedicures and tattoos and drinking at wine bars, all without a mask.
“I see people around me not being concerned, so it makes me feel not that concerned either,” Simpson said. “We have this, Nothing is going to touch us, everyone is overreacting and being dramatic, mentality in Texas. Half the time, Texas talks about becoming its own country.”
Though Texas Governor Greg Abbott endorses masks, he does not wear them in public appearances and did not mandate their use when Texas reopened last month. “One thing we believe in Texas (is that) every individual has the power to control their lives to make sure they self-protect, and we understand that face masks is one way people can protect themselves from contracting or spreading COVID-19," Abbott told San Antonio TV station KENS 5. "That’s exactly why every time I talk, I urge Texans to wear a face mask. That said, what we’ve determined is that it’s wrong to subject people to a penalty such as being arrested or having to pay a fine for not wearing a face mask.”
Parents and guardians, as well as some faculty members, at two high schools in the Katy area affirmed that sense of personal liberty when they held an unsanctioned prom and beach party for students on May 28. Thirteen students tested positive for COVID-19 after the event. Then, on June 8, Texas saw its highest number of COVID-related hospitalizations to date—even as the state moves toward Phase 3 of reopening. Nine days after her initial interview with VICE, Simpson had reconsidered her stance.
"After [the cases confirmed in my area], I'm re-tightening my own feelings toward things and being more cautious. So now I'm wearing a mask at the grocery store again," Simpson said. "I don't know about all of Katy [in terms of people's feelings about safety measures], but this has now changed, in my mind."
In Florida, where officials recommend but do not require face masks and cases are also increasing, Angie (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) has feelings similar to Simpson’s. The 31-year-old full-service sex worker is a mother of three who supports two siblings. At the start of the pandemic, she stopped offering GFE (girlfriend experience) bookings, which include kissing, but she kept seeing clients.
“I don’t know anyone personally who has gotten sick,” said Angie, who makes safety choices based on information she finds on Reddit and online forums. “I’m a conspiracy theorist, so I always think there’s an angle to things.”
In Orlando, where Angie lives, the general public is “lax” about mask-wearing. Most of her clients didn’t mention the virus at all, and those who did referenced it only in passing. “Nobody was like, ‘Hey, I want you to wear a mask or stop seeing other people,’” Angie said. “The response to safety protocols has been very lackadaisical.”
Angie and Chris Cucchiara, a 31-year-old Instacart driver in Pismo Beach, California, both mentioned conflicting information about masks from researchers as impactful to their decision-making. The CDC’s soft language (“A cloth face covering may not protect the wearer, but it may keep the wearer from spreading the virus to others”) offers some wiggle room for reluctant maskers, although the agency does advocate their use.
Angie said her belief system and her anxiety also prevent her from wearing masks. “They’re irritating; it’s hard to breathe, and I feel like I’m enclosed when I have them on,” she said.
Cucchiara said masks trigger his anxiety, too. “I’ve barely worn one since the beginning,” he said. “Besides, the mask has been shown to be detrimental toward health.”
Dery said that’s absolutely not true. In fact, according to Dery's medical opinion, if everyone in the world wore a face mask for 28 days, the spread of COVID-19 would halt. “We would virtually eliminate the virus because the incubation cycle is 14 days,” he said. “I can’t underscore the importance of masking enough.” Dery pointed out that the CDC highlighted the respiratory route as the main mode of COVID-19 transmission—and that masks help catch infected droplets: “People say there's conflicting data—but the data is becoming increasingly clear, week by week, that masks decrease viral transmission,” he said. He strongly encourages people to wear masks at all times.
Masks are especially important at protests, because of the proximity of participants and the fact that they’re often yelling, singing, chanting and doing other things that could potentially propel infected droplets across a crowd. Masks catch these droplets, but victims of tear gas can’t stay masked if they’re vomiting or flushing their eyes and nose with water. “What horrifies me is the use of noxious chemicals that forces people to take off masks and cause coughing, screaming, eye-rubbing, nose-blowing, and/or crying, which could lead to further transmission of the virus,” Dery said. “The response we’re seeing to protesters could potentially be making the problem worse.”
Ehamo did not experience police brutality at the gathering she attended, though police did use tear gas at protests in Minnesota, Louisiana, North Carolina and Oregon, undermining “appropriate infection control measures in the time of a pandemic,” according to an open letter from healthcare professionals against the use of tear gas. Like so many dubious safety responses, the use of tear gas seems rooted in a desire to maintain a status quo. But pre-COVID life is gone, Dery said, and it’s not coming back anytime soon.
“The socially conscious thing to do is recognize this is going to be life for a while,” Dery said. “Post-COVID life is going to look different. Until we understand and change society on a fundamental level that decreases the likelihood of further transmission, we’re one pandemic away from this happening all over again.”
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