Podcast: When Can I Take Off My Mask?

It felt like wearing a seat belt in a parked car and then unbuckling the seat belt just as I put the car in drive. It felt like doing the opposite of what safety precautions should dictate. So I wrote this piece essentially pointing out, based on lots of research, that this virus does not seem to spread very effectively outside and we should probably think about very soon lifting outdoor mask mandates while encouraging vaccinated and unvaccinated people to wear their masks in public indoor spaces.

I want people to live their life as normally as possible while protecting themselves as reasonably as possible. And I think the way to do that is: masks inside, masks in crowds, no outdoor mask mandates for people just living their life outside.

Higgins: If hygiene theater is what we’ve maybe been overdoing, what haven’t we been doing enough of that we should probably do more?

Thompson: I’m really glad that you asked that. I think people listen to me and [often] they’re like: Oh, you don’t take the pandemic seriously. And I do. I just conceptualize of this pandemic very specifically. It’s an indoor, talking disease, for the most part. If you are talking or breathing inside in an exerted way, like at the gym, that’s where the threat is. I think that people have sometimes had a really backward idea of what they should be doing inside.

I wrote this piece last summer about library rules for America. We should have signs on places like CVS or Trader Joe’s that say: Please Keep Your Voice Down. This disease truly does spread through the aerosolization that comes from our talking. So people who go into CVS with their masks on and then pull down their mask to talk more clearly into [their cellphone] have completely misunderstood how this virus works. Don’t do that. Keep your voice down. That’s a very reasonable thing to ask of people in these public spaces.

But I’m for giving and taking. We should take away from people this freedom they might feel to chat loudly on the phone in CVS and Trader Joe’s, while at the same time giving them the removal of outdoor mask mandates. [We should be] giving them the outside, not shutting down beaches [or] shaming people for going out in a park without their masks on. We should be celebrating the outdoors, while more tightly regulating the indoors.

Hamblin: I couldn’t agree more with you, Derek. This is an issue that, in covering health behaviors, I tend to run up against quite a lot. People see binaries. Something is either good or bad. And masks seem to fall in that category where it’s hard to emphasize that things are only good or bad in context.

How do you think about threading that needle for people who are just like: I thought I needed to wear a mask. Now you’re saying I don’t need to wear a mask? I think Dr. [Anthony] Fauci sees that binary and thinks: We need to keep people in the “Masks are good” category and not the “Masks are bad” category.

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