Phone, wallet, keys, mask. It’s the checklist ingrained in so many of our brains when we leave the house these days. A hook near the door, a bin in your closet — you’ve probably got a place for your masks, or a routine to restock the disposable ones.
And for many Chicagoans, newly loosened mask restrictions will not change that.
“I think at some level, masks, no matter what the government says, are going to be here with us,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Illinoisans vaccinated against COVID-19 are no longer required to wear a mask in small gatherings outside, or private indoor gatherings among other vaccinated people, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the state is following. The guidance is another step in Illinois’ continued reopening. Masks are still recommended for large crowds or indoor gatherings of unvaccinated people.
While some say they’ll light fire to their masks as soon as they can (a mask bonfire, if you will), numerous Chicagoans tell WBEZ they’re not ready to unmask.
Some say they just don’t yet feel safe taking them off, as CDC guidance on masks has shifted throughout the pandemic. Others say it’s just a habit they’ve formed that they’re not ready to quit.
“So we are not wearing shirts from now on?”
Chicagoan Christie Chew-Wallace makes her masks out of her own paintings. The one she’s wearing while speaking with WBEZ in the South Loop is an abstract piece with colorful, faded criss-cross lines and dots.
“It’s nice and breathable actually … It’s perfect,” she said. She loves it, but she doesn’t think she’ll be attached to the mask, or even keep it, forever.
However, even though she’s vaccinated, feels safe outside, and would be in compliance with CDC guidance, she doesn’t yet want to stop wearing it, even when out for a walk.
“I do put my mask on — although they just said we don’t have to, but I don’t care,” said. “It’s gonna take me a little bit … I just got used to it.”
University of Chicago social psychologist Ayelet Fishbach, who’s been studying COVID-19 behaviors, says the idea of becoming attached to a habit, even one you initially resented, is not unusual.
“Learning to use masks was certainly a challenge,” Fishback said. “And it is a challenge because it is hard for us to learn from something that doesn’t result in results that we can see.”
But, she said, a year is more than long enough to form a habit, especially this type of habit.
“We kind of condition ourselves to behave in a certain way under certain circumstances. We don’t need to make a decision … it’s semi-automatic. You learn that in situation X you, you do Y — you go in a crowded place, you wear a mask, you wake up in the morning, you brush your teeth. You don’t need to motivate yourself to do it. It’s just part of what you do.”
Fishbach says breaking the mask-wearing habit may feel even stranger for children.
“Because for them … a year [feels] even longer,” she said. “So at this point for a child to remove the mask is like … ‘So we are not wearing shirts from now on?’”
“A new way to control sickness”
While Dr. Arwady did not commit to a specific policy in the future around masks, you can probably expect them to become a regular practice during flu season, or to stop a bug from spreading.
“Ya know, two years ago, if you had a terrible cold, you’d just go to work, right? And not think too much about how you were spreading your germs around,” she said. “And I do think, at some level, we will continue to see people make that choice to wear a mask.”
Around a dozen Chicagoans told WBEZ they plan on utilizing a mask in some form in the future — even when, or if, COVID-19 outbreaks aren’t a concern.
“I can see wearing a mask on the plane all the time,” said Chicagoan Tony Savino. “Or in really tight areas, even though I hate [the mask]. I think at certain times, you may just want to do it. Not just for COVID, but for anything else that’s flying around.”
Others said they’ve noticed health benefits outside of preventing transmission of a specific virus, such as keeping your face warm, or pollen out of your nose.
“I’ve noticed that … my allergies are not nearly as bad,” said UIC student Jeff Donnan. “In the past if you wore a mask, people look at you like something’s wrong with you … But I don’t see why I wouldn’t, like during flu season, wear a mask.”
The Illinois Department of Public Health also did not commit to a specific policy on mask-wearing, but said it might become a regular part of flu season guidance.
“While mask mandates are not currently being considered for general disease circulation, wearing a mask during flu seasons may be something that could be recommended,” a spokesperson said in an email.
Chicago’s flu season was almost nonexistent this year, credited to masks, social distancing and handwashing. Data show just a single flu-associated hospitalization this season, compared to 479 in 2019-20.
“I think this pandemic has taught us a new way to control sickness,” said South Loop resident Chloe Kinkaid.
Arwady, and others, point out while the masks may be a new tool for Chicagoans and Americans, it’s been ingrained in cultures across the world for quite some time.
“In a lot of Asian countries that’ve been hit harder with SARS and some of these others, there is much more of a culture of wearing a mask when I’m not feeling well or if I’m traveling,” she said.
“Two very righteous factions”
If there’s one thing that people agree on — regardless of whether they prolong their mask-wearing or shed it ASAP — it’s that they’ll be judged for their decision.
“I think we have two, like very righteous factions,” said 38-year-old Chicagoan Sean Miller. “I see crazy, fringe [anti-COVID] conspiracy theorists on one side, and I also see people who are righteously following [guidelines] without any questioning … like ‘Hey let’s triple-mask cause that’s the new thing.’”
Fishbach, the U of C social psychologist, said the mask could continue to be a form of signaling one’s identity and beliefs as it has been during the pandemic.
“Which is kind of funny if we think about it … liberal ideology was not associated with trying to cover any part of your body until a year ago,” she said. “And then people said, ‘Okay, well, here’s another thing that we can associate with our identity in order to deliver a certain message.’”
Kinkaid, the South Loop Chicagoan who’s vaccinated, said she doesn’t feel like the mask is a political statement, but that by wearing it she’s signaling that she cares about other people’s safety.
Another Chicagoan, who doesn’t wear a mask unless required and asked that his name not be used, said he doesn’t judge people for wearing one outside. A moment later he admitted he thinks they’re idiots.
“So actually, yeah, I would say I do judge them.”
Regardless of their stance on masking, many told WBEZ they hope these judgments dissipate with the pandemic.
Mariah Woelfel is a city government reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.