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California's Mask Mandate Ends June 15. Here's Why Some Fully Vaccinated People Will Keep Wearing Them

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Natasha (R) and Michael Davis remove their face masks to kiss after their wedding ceremony.
Natasha (R) and Michael Davis remove their face masks to kiss after their wedding ceremony officiated by a clerk recorder at the Honda Center parking lot on April 21, 2020 in Anaheim, California.  (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

On June 15, California will fully reopen for "business as usual." The state will officially adopt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance that fully vaccinated people can ditch their masks in most indoor and outdoor settings.

From that date onward, the only places that vaccinated Californians will be required to wear masks are: on and around public transit (e.g. BART, Muni, ferries and airplanes), indoors in K-12 schools and child care settings, health care settings, homeless shelters, emergency shelters and cooling centers.

This update on mask guidance — which the state has waited almost a month to implement after the CDC first announced their new guidelines back in May — will no doubt have many vaccinated Californians delighted to finally stop wearing masks.

But what if you're not ready to scrap your face covering just yet?

We asked KQED's social media audiences if they would in fact keep wearing a mask in certain situations after June 15, despite being fully vaccinated. And while many people told us they were looking forward to dispensing with masks, others gave multiple reasons that they wanted to keep wearing theirs a little longer.

We consulted Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at UCSF, on the reasons we'd heard for mask-wearing beyond June 15, asking how justified these concerns might be from a medical and social perspective. Read on for the full list — or skip to a particular one:

(And if you're more in the mood for listening, you can hear this story explained on The Bay podcast.)

Familiarity, Habit and Control

A couple wearing face masks walk in the boardwalk in Venice, California. (Photo by Apu Gomes/AFP)

Perhaps one of the simplest reasons for continuing to wear masks: We've been collectively wearing them for over a year. We're now used to grabbing one before we leave the house, and accustomed to our jacket pockets being stuffed with face coverings from previous outings. After a year of public health messaging, many of us now automatically associate masks with safety.

While Chin-Hong said June 15 feels to him like "about the right time" for California to adopt the CDC's guidance, he also stressed that continuing to cover your face, for whatever reason, is virtually without drawbacks.

"If people want to wear the masks, it's not going to harm them," he said. "Nobody ever dies from wearing a mask."

If you're feeling attached to your mask, you may not even be alone for the first few weeks after June 15. Chin-Hong notes that just because California is formally adopting these latest CDC guidelines on masks doesn't mean a ton of people will immediately start observing them. The state officially aligned with the CDC's previous set of guidelines — the update that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people could mostly ditch their masks outdoors — back in April, but many in the Bay Area have chosen to keep wearing face coverings outside anyway.

"I think it's kind of reflecting, at least regionally, [some] people's hesitancy to sort of dispense with the masks altogether," said Chin-Hong. It could also be an indication that we might not see a great collective unmasking after June 15 just yet.

Concern For Unvaccinated Kids

Children attend online classes at a learning hub inside the Crenshaw Family YMCA on Feb. 17, 2021 in Los Angeles. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Right now, children younger than 12 years old can't get vaccinated (yet) in the United States. And some parents and caregivers are naturally concerned about keeping those kids safe from COVID, even as fully vaccinated adults around them are taking their masks off.

While Chin-Hong understands families' fears around this, he said this concern is "only sensible if you think about context — and I think that's where much of the guidance is probably not comprehensive enough." This means it's all about assessing risk.

Evidence shows that children under 12 are far less likely to contract and transmit COVID than older kids and adults, Chin-Hong said. But he thinks that even when they're armed with these facts, many parents and caregivers are still "probably just uncomfortable about the idea of not having zero risk, even though everything in life is not zero risk."

His ultimate advice? If you're feeling worried about the kids in your life, masking is "a very mild intervention," meaning that continuing to do it has very few downsides. What's more, for caregivers, continuing to mask up might bring an element of control and agency that can feel highly comforting at this stage of the pandemic.

Another reason parents and caregivers might want to keep wearing masks after June 15? They may want to model mask-wearing for their kids to show it's important to keep your family and community safe.

"You can't tell your kid, for example, to wear a bicycle helmet when you don't wear one yourself," Chin-Hong reminded us, calling it "kind of Parenting 101."

Wanting to Avoid Colds and Other Viruses

Woman on a couch wrapped in a blanket, sneezing
If you've managed to avoid getting the common cold during the pandemic, you're not the only one. (Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels)

"I haven't had a single cold during the entire pandemic because of my mask" is the essence of many comments we received from our audience. Several of you said it's your reason for wanting to wear masks in certain settings beyond June 15.

We heard from many audience members who told us they would definitely keep masking on public transit, like BART, which will actually be required for several months anyway. That's because the Transportation Security Administration has extended mask requirements across all United States transportation networks, including on buses, trains, planes and at airports, through Sept. 13.

Your mask — along with social distancing, and increased hygiene like hand-washing — has probably very well protected you against the usual common colds you'd otherwise have picked up in settings like BART. Unlike COVID, many colds also spread from infection-carrying surfaces (called fomites), and Chin-Hong said that this is where masks really help protect you against colds: because they reduce your ability to touch your nose and mouth.

On the flip side, if you've heard people talking about how having less exposure to viruses like colds is actually bad for your immune systems, Chin-Hong is happy to clarify: That's "completely wrong."

"That theory about your immune system not being 'trained enough' is kind of bonkers, because there are 200 different viruses that cause the common cold, at least," he said. So in other words, being exposed to one cold virus doesn't reduce your chances of getting another type of cold the next month.

That said, Chin-Hong said the true power of the mask is its ability to protect others from your infectious droplets. It's the reason that many people have worn masks in crowded places for years when they're sick, and why he hopes we'll see this practice continue beyond the COVID pandemic. If more people do that, he said, "I think we'll all probably have fewer colds in general in the population."

In short: Keeping your mask on in crowed spaces where you're likely to touch surfaces during cold and flu season is a good idea — especially if you're not feeling great yourself.

Concern for Others With Health Conditions

A caregiver and her client. (verbaska_studio)

Many fully vaccinated audience members told us that they would continue to wear masks out of concern for friends and family who are immunocompromised, or who have other health conditions that mean the vaccine might not offer them full protection against the coronavirus. Some audience members told us this concern also extended to wearing masks in public beyond June 15 out of consideration for strangers in the crowd who might also have these health issues.

Wanting to protect others in this way is a very valid thought, said Chin-Hong. And even though the science tells that fully vaccinated individuals are unlikely to spread COVID, if masking up around an immunocompromised person makes everyone involved feel safe and more comfortable, Chin-Hong said go for it. "Certainly there's no harm in it," he said.

If you're immunocompromised yourself, Chin-Hong said the science is even more straightforward: Continuing to wear a mask in higher-risk settings, like crowds or indoors, is a good idea.

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Trust Issues Over Who Isn't Really Vaccinated

Pedestrian walks in North Beach, bus in the background
A pedestrian walks near a Muni bus with a marquee reading 'Masks Required' in San Francisco on Dec. 4, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The CDC's guidance that California will adopt on June 15 said that fully vaccinated people can ditch their masks in most places. But how can you know if someone who's not wearing a mask in your vicinity really is fully vaccinated?

This conundrum — the issue of trust and deceit, especially in public — was a recurrent theme in why our audiences told us they'd keep masking after June 15. And it's natural, given how the politicization of masks and the COVID vaccine has been a dangerous, depressing hallmark of the pandemic.

But it's important to consider context in this equation, said Chin-Hong. Even if you're concerned that someone is lying about being fully vaccinated so they can go unmasked, he said that Northern California's high vaccination rates and low coronavirus case counts mean that person's chances of having COVID are much lower than they would have been months ago.

"Even if you don't trust someone," said Chin-Hong, "the chances of you getting it right now in the Bay Area are still relatively small."

Of course, if you're planning to travel to other parts of the state or the country this summer, bear in mind that it's all about the vaccination rates and COVID case count of the region you're in. In certain places, the chances that an unvaccinated person might be carrying the coronavirus are higher than they'd be in the Bay Area. If you're in one of these areas, wearing your mask again even if you're fully vaccinated might well be a decision you want to take.

Social Pressure to Mask Up

People wearing face masks walk past a health and safety guideline board and an open restaurant on Santa Monica Pier. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

If you've felt uncomfortable not wearing your mask outdoors when everyone else is — even though, yes, what you're doing aligns with the CDC outdoor guidance California adopted weeks ago — you're not alone.

Many people told us they'd felt similar social pressure to mask up again in certain places even though they were fully vaccinated. Some told us they didn't want to be mistaken for someone who doesn't believe in science, or for someone who is anti-vaccine.

But others told us that it wasn't so much that they felt pressured, but that they actively wanted to telegraph their courtesy and care for others by keeping their mask on, even when they knew they posed no COVID risk to anyone else.

We're social creatures, and these kinds of considerations are "completely legitimate," said Chin-Hong — especially because as discussed above, wearing a mask can reduce the spread of other viruses like the common cold.

"I'd love it if it becomes part of our culture," said Chin-Hong.

Privacy and Convenience

Bertha Flores usando una mascarilla que hizo con su hija.
Bertha Flores wears a mask that she made with her daughter on 24th Street in San Francisco. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Another reason given by our audience for appreciating mask-wearing: the privacy it afforded in public settings. As Chin-Hong said, "What better way to stay incognito than wearing a mask?"

We especially heard from several women commenters who told us that a mask reduced the amount of times random men told them to smile, or catcalled them. (Or as Reddit user scarlet_tanager told us, "Strange men leave me the hell alone when I'm masked, which has been an absolute dream.")

Other commenters told us they appreciated the sheer practicality of a mask when it came to covering their face, and how it allowed them to cut down on wearing makeup, or maintaining personal grooming they'd previously felt necessary.

A mask can also help shield your face from the Bay Area's notoriously fickle weather, offering more protection from bone-chilling fog and wind.

This one's all down to personal preferences around appearance, comfort and convenience. Although it goes without saying that no person should ever feel they have to cover up their face to avoid being the target of street harassment.

OK, So What If I Get Challenged About Wearing My Mask?

Alicia and Mai Gonzalez wear masks on 24th Street in San Francisco on April 7, 2020. Alicia's mask is from a Halloween store and Mai was given her mask by her physical therapist. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Even though many audience members told us they were planning to keep wearing their masks beyond June 15, a lot of people also told us they couldn't wait for California to adopt the CDC's latest guidance, and dispense with mask-wearing. And several of those people expressed frustration that other fully vaccinated people wouldn't also feel this way, and similarly jump at the chance to take off their masks.

Add this burgeoning contrast to the existing politicization of mask-wearing, and you might find that choosing to keep your mask on after June 15 could well provoke comments, or see you being challenged on your decision, either in private or in public.

If that happens, what should you do?

Your first impulse might be to feel defensive, but Chin-Hong advises against this approach, for how it might escalate such a conversation. He suggests you consider assuming good faith, and that these kinds of comments, as unsolicited or unwanted as they might actually be coming from a place of concern that you don't feel safe or secure with that person without your mask.

Chin-Hong's advice is to initially approach these situations with gratitude and curiosity. You might begin by thanking someone for their concern, then following up by expressing your curiosity for the reason they're making their comment: "I'm just really curious — why are you saying that?" This approach, he said, can deescalate a situation much faster than automatically assuming bad intent.

And if you don't necessarily wish to engage someone in a dialogue by asking them to explain their comment, you can also just thank them for their concern and either change the subject or leave the situation entirely.

Chin-Hong hopes we don't see more instances of people being challenged about their preferences for masks — especially because of the potential for this disproportionate impacting certain communities through prejudice. "You can imagine lots of permutations with anti-Asian violence, because Asian populations have always worn a mask even before COVID," he said. "These are things that I think we'll have to watch out for."

"And be kind to each other, at the end of the day," he said.

This story was originally published on June 9.

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