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The Awkwardness Masks Now Carry

By Miriam

We have reached a stage in the pandemic where some places are still requiring masks while others are not. There has also been disagreement between different public health authorities about whether fully vaccinated people should have to wear a mask still or not. When I started writing this, Philadelphia was still requiring masks indoors, though not outdoors. Meanwhile, some surrounding counties were not. However, even in the areas where the local government is not mandating wearing masks, there are still some people who chose to wear a mask or individual businesses still requiring them. 

Personally, I have been wearing a mask throughout the pandemic when around people other than those I live with simply because I know the science behind it. I understand why the masks help slow the spread of COVID-19, so I wear one. However, I do not like wearing a mask. It took me months to get used to how it felt on my face. I still miss how it feels to have the sun or the breeze against my lower face when walking around outdoors in the mask, even after getting used to wearing it. My mask also becomes full of sweat by the end of the day if I wear it at work, making it even more annoying to keep on. I have been getting acne lately in the area of my face the mask covers after I wear it for long periods of time, which is likely from it becoming dirty and still sitting against my skin for hours. Additionally, it is frustrating when I suddenly need to sneeze while wearing the mask and do not have time to grab a tissue first. Anything I sneezed out just stays in the mask for the rest of the day, making it gross to wear. Even if I switch masks throughout the day, it does not take long for it to be filled with moisture on one of the days where the temperature is above ninety degrees Fahrenheit or if I wear it while exercising. I find the mask also acts slightly like a scarf, making me feel even warmer on these hot summer days. I would love to not wear a mask for plenty of reasons, though I also know why I should wear it. 

There is only one benefit I have found to wearing a mask besides helping slow the spread of respiratory infections. Especially when working customer-facing jobs, there is pressure to always smile and look cheerful at work. While a real smile and other emotions will show in the eyes as well, since the mask covers my mouth, I can now express my frustration or other more negative emotions when they naturally occur at work instead of faking a smile. I’m able to do so much more with my mouth now to express emotions I want to get out without someone else seeing. The mask hides those emotions for me instead of having to ‘mask’ a warm, friendly customer service expression if that current moment is just a particularly bad one. I can also simply have a calm expression on my face instead of it being as obvious that I am not smiling. I just have to be careful about what emotions my eyes and general body language convey. Although, if I am naturally smiling, the mask also makes that harder to see. 

Until Philadelphia recently lifted its mask mandate, I found myself having to enforce wearing masks at work. It was an awkward responsibility to have. Often, people would ask me why they have to wear a mask if they are vaccinated and I would have to explain how Philadelphia still requires them. Sometimes, the person would then smile and mention living outside the city. Other times, the rest of the interaction was suddenly more intense as they either refused to wear a mask or were annoyed about having to put one on. It was especially awkward when someone placed their mask on their chin or would pull down their mask to speak to me. 

When I would mishear a customer while they were wearing a mask, the person would often say, “It’s the mask.” I cannot argue with customers about this, but I know it is usually not actually the mask. During jobs I had pre-pandemic, it was also often difficult to clearly hear what customers are saying. Some people simply do not speak loud enough. There are also competing voices and music I often have to filter out. If you are ever in a store, please do not pull down your mask just to speak. It really just puts us both in danger from a public health perspective. There are plenty of times I hear customers correctly the first time, but retail environments are especially loud places where voices can easily blend together. If anything, the biggest obstacle is when a coworker next to me is asking a similar question to another customer and we start mixing up who is answering whom or cannot hear one person over the other. I had one time recently where I was asking one customer a question and a completely different customer I was not facing thought I was speaking to them. Therefore, if there is a miscommunication, please do not assume it is the mask and start pulling your mask down. It simply defeats the purpose of wearing one to do so. 

About a week before the mask mandate was lifted, I visited a grocery store right on the other side of the Philadelphia border that did not require masks if you were fully vaccinated. I found this environment even more awkward after a while than when masks are required. This was due to most people in the store still wearing one. At first, I decided to take off my mask, mostly because it was particularly full of sweat after working a full shift and I was fully vaccinated by then anyway. It felt so nice to finally walk around without one. However, as soon as I went to ask a question to an employee who had a mask on, I felt bad. Sure, the mask was not required, but I still felt like I was still putting this person in danger possibly. Why should I take off my mask only for the slight comfort of not having a sweaty piece of cloth against my face when most people around me are still wearing one? What did this employee think of me for speaking to them without a mask on? Spaces where most people are still wearing masks, yet the masks are not required just seem like uncharted territory as far as social expectations. 

After the mask mandate was lifted in Philadelphia, I have continued to wear one in public for now. The first few days after it was lifted were especially awkward. Now, some employees in the same store will wear a mask while others do not. I have noticed this both at my own job and in other businesses. Philadelphia also announced individual businesses can still decide on their own to require masks. I have run into places already that have made this individual decision to still require them. It’s weird walking into a place and not knowing right away if masks are required. Not every store has a sign outside saying if you need a mask. Even the stores that do have a sign often have an outdated one. I end up looking around a lot when entering a new store, trying to get a sense of if masks are the norm there or not. 

When I was at a restaurant lately, no one had a mask on once sitting at the table, except the servers. This felt so much more comfortable until the server walked by in a mask and I felt bad for them. It was nice to finally see people’s full faces again and not feel the social pressure of the majority of people still wearing masks. Plus, you cannot wear a mask while eating anyway. It’s moments like that where you can almost forget about the pandemic. Everyone around me in the restaurant was happily chatting with friends and family without masks, acting as if it were before the pandemic. While I am glad to see this restaurant full of customers again and I had a fun time going there, having an atmosphere where you can temporarily forget the pandemic is also what makes spaces like that a bit dangerous as well. 

At first, whenever I was in a space where not everyone was wearing a mask, whichever is the minority seemed to especially catch my eye. If I was in a store where most people were wearing masks, then the people not wearing one seemed to stand out. In a restaurant where everyone at a table was not wearing a mask, the server who still wore one stood out. I feel like as more time passes since the mask mandate was lifted, this is happening less often. I’m starting to get used to a mix of some people wearing masks while others are not. I think individuals only stood out like that at first due to not being used to a mixed environment of some masks and some maskless people and from having to enforce mask-wearing at work for so long. It still feels odd when I see a crowd completely without masks in a photo or video within a setting I had not seen that in recently. A friend posted a photo of a fully crowded baseball stadium, and no one around them seemed to be wearing a mask. A photo like that would have been completely normal pre-pandemic, but it just still feels too soon to see that now when the pandemic isn’t over yet. I also was surprised to see a late-night show recently where almost no one in the audience had a mask on when the camera turned towards them. It felt especially weird considering one of the people on the show then made a joke about finally breathing the same air. It’s sweet seeing more and more videos of people getting together with friends and family they had not seen since before the pandemic. It also feels great to finally be able to do more activities outside the house again. However, the sight of spaces packed full of people without masks just seems odd still. I remember earlier in the pandemic when I was walking around the grocery store and realized the only faces around me not wearing masks were on the posters and food labels. Now, I’m trying to see if the employees are wearing masks to make an educated guess on if masks are still required in that particular store. 

The end of mask mandates has taught me how much a mask can change your perception of someone’s face. I have met people during the pandemic that had a small beard or braces completely hidden under the mask. It was not until they took their mask off to eat or after the mandate was lifted that I found out they had a beard or braces. Additionally, some people shaved off their beards and the mask hid that at first. There was also one person I met while out to eat recently who had a large beard that looked messier when he went to put his mask back on than when I initially met him without the mask. The beard poked out of the mask in random ways when it had sat neatly on his face before putting the mask back on. Sometimes, the shape of someone’s chin is also much different than it seemed to be under the mask when I then see them for the first time without a mask. I find myself barely recognizing certain people I met while wearing masks now that I can finally see their whole face. I have to especially focus on their eyes to recognize them now since I had only seen the upper portion of their face for months. I also kept wondering when I walked around the city with masks on earlier in the pandemic if someone I knew had walked by and I had not recognized them with a mask on. Additionally, I noticed that sometimes the mask can make someone appear a different age than they are. One time, a customer’s ID said they were in their 40s and I almost thought they had handed me someone else’s ID. The person had seemed so much younger before I saw their ID. When I looked closely at the ID photo, I realized it was the same person. The upper half of their face just had a particularly youthful look and I had assumed them to be no older than their 20s or 30s when first interacting. Their face overall looked young as well, but their eyes especially appeared younger than they actually were. Not long after that interaction, someone else I had only interacted with while wearing masks asked me how old I thought they were. I knew from previous conversations they were not particularly young, yet they also seemed to have particularly youthful eyes. It’s amazing how covering up half our face with a mask can impact our appearance.

These awkward situations are not extremely so. It’s just enough of a feeling to notice and easy to adjust to. The changes this transition away from masks have brought if anything just makes me notice things that would not have stood out before. How do you feel now that mask-wearing is very slowly lessening? I know some places have transitioned away from them faster, but it seems to be slow where I am, with many people still choosing to wear them past the mandate’s end. It’s definitely an interesting topic to spend some time mentally reflecting on, especially while walking around in public.