Even if COVID cases are rising again, the author isn't ready to mask up again. But she's also not quite ready to say goodbye forever...
PARIS — Waiting in line at the pharmacy the other day, I heard a customer ask for a COVID-19 test. The pharmacist let out a long sarcastic sigh: “We’re still doing those?”
Of course they are, as cases are again rising ahead of winter here in France and many other places around the world. But the true sign of the depth of our collective COVID fatigue were the masks at the pharmacy. That is, there were none, not even the pharmacist was wearing one, even if a sign hangs in front saying they’re required.
The regular announcements that have begun airing again on French radio about the importance of masks in containing the virus sound beside the point. Indeed, wearing masks is no longer a requirement anywhere in France, merely a suggestion.
Still, masks have by no means gone away, either in society, or my mind. That becomes clearest when I’m riding the metro in Paris. As I count the ratio of masked to non-masked, and hear the daily announcements on the benefits of wearing one, a dilemma starts to creep in…
One of the clearest COVID-19 memories for me was riding the subway without a mask for the first time. While in other settings my mask wearing varied according to the highs and lows of the virus and the ever changing French law, I wore a mask every day in the metro or on the bus without exception for almost two years.
When, on May 16. 2022, masks were no longer mandatory on public transportation, I was eager to take mine off. It was a strange sense of liberation mixed with guilt and fear.
During the pandemic, and for what seemed like an eternity, masks became our outside faces. The simple fact of not wearing a mask in a crowd was not just a question of my own personal health, but challenged my sense of what it means to be a citizen. As the question became more and more apparent for city dwellers, I realized that masks didn’t just mean protecting yourself from COVID, but was a way to protect those who might be more vulnerable. And yet…two years.
A long history of masks
Going back to the early days of the pandemic, masks have always been a complicated topic. As panic spread, so did the demand for masks and some early misinformation about whether they actually prevented the spread of the virus. We later found it, public officials were facing extreme mask shortages. Medical staff here in France responded with threats of walking off the job as they did not have the tools to deal with the pandemic.
Meanwhile, luxury brands such as Saint Laurent and Balenciaga started manufacturing non-surgical masks to donate across Europe. Louis Vuitton converted five of its French workshops to make masks for healthcare workers.
But we also found out early that covering half your face could easily ruin an outfit. The world caught up to the fashion industry, and masks slowly became a fashion accessory. Many clothing brands started making their own version of masks, using the same fabric and design as their clothes.
What is mascne?
Even though masks could limit the spread of the virus, it brought other problems. People started complaining about skin problems, like acne, created by the perpetual rubbing of the mask on the skin. I, myself, was a victim of so-called mascne, left reliving my puberty days at the age of 24. The upside? Wearing a mask hid all of it!
Another odd facial side-note to living through a pandemic was the impact on cosmetics. Because the bottom of our faces were covered, lipstick sales plummeted and more prominent eye makeup was in style.
Humans are creatures of habit and hiding half of our face in public soon became comfortable, natural. It was as though we reset a new limit of intimacy with strangers, only revealing our full visage to those in our respective bubbles.
A sign in France: "Face masks mandatory"
To mask or not to mask?
For the past six months or more, a range of COVID regulations have quietly vanished. Part of that is due to an overall reduction of serious and fatal cases, but there are also economic considerations — and perhaps most of all, yes, COVID fatigue. That has meant obligatory masks are virtually all but gone in the West.
Of course, that’s not the case everywhere. As we’ve seen in the past few weeks, China is facing a major public backlash against COVID restrictions, including obligatory masks. In Japan, as noted in German daily Die Welt, where people wore masks in public even before the pandemic, taking them off became unimaginable. The Japanese even invented a new word for the masks: "face underpants" (kao-pantsu) meaning something that you do not take off in public any more than you would your underwear.
Back here in Paris, as I look around on my daily commute, more and more people have again begun to wear masks on the metro. France’s COVID-19 cases have gone up 20% in the last seven days, and it also happens to be good ol’ cold and flu season. For among the facts of science that I firmly believe is that washing your hands often and wearing masks, while not a cure-all, can help reduce the chance of catching contagious illnesses.
Still, for the moment, I’m still maskless, but giving a second thought to one I always keep with me in my bag. COVID, we are told, is destined to fade out of our lives. Perhaps masks never will.