Steve Boggs: Learn to read the room where masks are concerned
We’re between waves, so everyone’s best practices for mask usage are under review, including CDC guidelines. COVID-19 is still here, but omicron is clearly on the way out and the drumbeat of the next wave isn’t audible just yet. While we wait for the next variant to invade, allow me to share some easy-to-follow masking guidelines.
First, you don’t really need a mask outside. Never have. Even pandemic-addicted California is letting go of its outdoor masking guidelines this week. I’ve not intentionally worn a mask outside since the pandemic began two years ago, unless required or requested by present company. Social distancing has worked very well instead.
Indoor mask wearing remains situational. That, too, hasn’t changed. As my former boss Jim Wilson is famous for saying, learn to read the room. If social distancing is impossible and you are in mixed company, it’s probably a good habit to slide one on just in case, if so motivated. Again, prevalence of cases and spread plays a role in indoor mask usage. Right now, both are low, so indoor use is very much a risk-reward, case-by-case situation. I’m out on indoor masking right now, unless the room is small and full, or if it’s requested by mixed company.
Elevators and airplanes may be permanent masking situations moving forward. Both probably should have been all along. Airplanes are tight spaces with terrible ventilation — literally perfect for spreading viruses of all kinds. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine not wearing a face covering on all those flights. Elevators are awkward places to begin with, so if a mask helps me avoid conversations with strangers in a small metal box, then sign me up.
In mixed company, mask up in a vehicle. By yourself, you just look silly wearing a mask.
Don’t engage with militant non-maskers. That ship sailed a year ago when vaccines became widely available and half the county said “no thanks.” Most won’t engage with maskers, either. Give each other an extra step of space, and go on about your day. You can deride each other in silence, because time hasn’t changed either of your minds over the past 14 months and it’s certainly not going to start now.
Ignore social media posts highlighting maskless “gotcha” moments. Nobody wears them all the time, and if you do, you probably have bigger problems than COVID-19.
Nobody reads rooms like school administrators. With all the remote learning and irate parents these folks have endured over the past 18 months, most schools know what they’re doing. Several McLennan County districts implemented a scale last school year to determine whether masks would be mandatory or not — and it has worked pretty well. When cases explode, the masks go on. When they relax, the masks come off. Of course, if you want your kid to wear a mask, nobody’s stopping you. The scalable mandates didn’t draw much in the way of protests, at least apart from our unhinged attorney general. Fortunately, enough school districts ignored or fought the AG to the point that they were able keep their sensible policies in place during the delta and omicron waves.
I have no advice for sporting events. I’ve avoided them since the pandemic began, except for the OU-Baylor football game this past November (also during a downward trend following a spike). We masked up for the walk in, but dropped them after we sat down because there wasn’t anyone close to us. Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas still has a mask mandate in place, and it’s a cool visual to see all those rabid fans in masks on TV. Some of those kids have some pretty inventive masks. Most sporting events, however, do not require masks at this time.
We’re moving from wave to wave with COVID-19, and with each variant comes updated guidelines for mitigation. But the fundamentals remain constant — social distance when you can, mask up when you sense the need, and try to convince someone you know who isn’t to get vaccinated.
Overwhelming, global vaccination is the only way out of this pandemic for good. We’re stuck at a 54% rate here in McLennan County, inching upward at a rate of about 80 vaccinations per day. We’re 10 percentage points behind the Texas vaccination rate, and 15 points behind the U.S. overall.
Unless we wise up, or die off, we’re going to be reading rooms for a long time to come.
Steve Boggs is a native of Leflore, Okla., and has been editor of the Tribune-Herald since 2014.
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