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Jim Kenyon: Phantoms of mask theater are haunting public policy

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 5/18/2021 9:54:32 PM
Modified: 5/18/2021 9:54:30 PM

Customers entering Starbucks in downtown Hanover on Monday morning were greeted by a new sign on the front door: “If you are fully vaccinated, facial coverings are optional.”

But outside the cafe, a town poster hanging on a pole above the sidewalk reminded pedestrians that “face masks are required to be worn beyond this point.”

Talk about mask confusion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that it’s OK for people who are fully vaccinated to ditch their COVID-19 masks in most indoor settings. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu had already let the state’s mask mandate expire in mid-April. But Hanover is among several Upper Valley communities where local officials remain unconvinced that going maskless — even for the fully vaccinated — is sound public policy.

“I still worry,” Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said, standing outside Town Hall, where both us were masked up on Monday. “We’re going to err on the side of caution.”

Griffin told me that Starbucks could expect a friendly visit from Hanover’s health officer later in the day to reinforce that masks are still required in the store.

“We’ll set them straight,” she said.

After the CDC announcement, Starbucks was among the national retailers to shelve its mask mandate for fully vaccinated customers, as long as state and local governments had done the same.

I don’t mean to sound like an anti-masker, but it’s time more Upper Valley communities allowed the fully vaccinated to let down their face coverings. Along with Hanover, I’ve noticed that Lebanon and Norwich, for starters, have yet to follow the CDC’s lead.

It’s not about granting personal freedoms. It’s about following science.

The CDC has determined that people can safely resume pre-COVID-19 indoor activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, if they’re two weeks beyond their second dose in a two-dose series or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine (Exceptions include health care facilities, homeless shelters, prisons and public transportation.)

“Additionally, a growing body of evidence suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infection or transmit (COVID-19) to others,” the CDC reported last week.

The agency’s new policy is based on recent “real world” studies conducted in the U.S. and Israel on people who’ve been vaccinated.

“The CDC does have data to support this decision,” John Swartzberg, an infectious-disease specialist and clinical professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Medicine, told The New York Times. “It’s not like they’re operating on the fly.”

Given the CDC announcement, I’m not sure what some Upper Valley communities are waiting for.

On Saturday, I made my weekly trip to the Norwich transfer station, where a “face mask required” sign was still tacked to a tree at the entrance. The town also continues to limit access to the recycling area to a half-dozen or so cars at a time.

Never mind the CDC announced in late April that fully vaccinated people don’t have to worry about covering their faces when outdoors. Or that Vermont Gov. Phil Scott lifted the state’s mask and physical distancing rules for the fully vaccinated on Friday.

In an email, Norwich Town Manager Herb Durfee told me that he’s out of the office this week but plans to “address masks” and the “opening of public buildings” when he returns next week. He didn’t indicate which way he was leaning.

As of Tuesday, the CDC website reported that 66% of all Vermont residents had received at least one shot and New Hampshire was at 60%. The national average was 48%. The CDC hopes its new mask guidance will persuade more people to roll up their sleeves.

But I wonder if Upper Valley mask mandates are kept in place for much longer that we run the risk of undermining the CDC. If local officials don’t have faith in the CDC, why should people who are on the fence about getting the vaccine believe anything the CDC says? Results have shown the vaccine offers the best protection from getting COVID-19 and reduces the chances of people spreading the virus.

In Hanover, Griffin expects the Selectboard to consider lifting the mask mandate after Dartmouth’s commencement weekend in mid-June. Although the college is limiting tickets, Hanover still expects a large number of visitors from other parts of the country, which concerns Griffin. She pointed out that Hanover’s mask mandate doesn’t apply to people who are social distancing, which she agreed is tough to do downtown.

In Monday’s sudden burst of spring, I came across a mix of the masked and unmasked hanging out on the Dartmouth Green.

Peter Stern, 60, was enjoying a noontime office break on a park bench — until I interrupted his peace and quiet by asking his reasons for masking when there was no one within 20 feet. Stern, who lives in Lyme and is fully vaccinated, told me that other than having to deal with his “glasses fogging up,” he doesn’t consider wearing a mask too much to ask.

Besides, he added, “I tend to be a rule follower.”

Most people are.

But I think there’s something else going on as well.

Outside the parking garage in downtown Hanover, I ran into a fully vaccinated acquaintance, who, like me, was dutifully wearing a mask.

Why do most of us continue to abide by rules that science tells us are no longer really necessary once we are fully jabbed? “Mask theater,” he replied.

I knew what he meant. Many of us in the Upper Valley don’t want to be seen maskless in public — even when outdoors — for fear that our friends, neighbors and co-workers will look unfavorably on our decision. Or worse, they’ll assume we’ve gone over to the dark side — Trumpville.

So many of us continue to wear masks when we don’t need to. Science be damned.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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