Carla Bradley hasn’t left home much since the pandemic began last year. And when she does, she wears a mask.
“Even when it’s just the post office, for example, I still have my mask on the moment I get out of the car,” Bradley, a League City resident, said.
After 15 months of masking up, Bradley, who is fully vaccinated, has come to rely on the protective barrier between herself and other people, she said.
For many vaccinated people, the days of masks and distancing are in most cases blissfully behind them as local COVID-19 cases plummet.
But for some vaccinated Galveston County residents, continued concern about the virus and a year of social isolation have left them uncomfortable — and in some cases anxious — about returning to pre-pandemic normal.
Masks, recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a step to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, had for more than a year become familiar sights at grocery stores and other public places. Stances on masking also became a political flashpoint. But since vaccines have become readily available, more people are ditching face coverings in indoor settings and many stores have revised their policies to allow vaccinated people to unmask. Most leave it up to their customers.
Islander Deborah Dillard has certainly noticed a difference in her comfort level being around crowds, she said.
Dillard has been vaccinated for months, but she still wears a mask, she said. While that’s largely because she has lupus and still worries about contracting COVID-19, there’s also a comfortable anonymity that comes with the mask, she said.
“It’s kind of a barrier that I got used to where you don’t have to engage,” Dillard said.
Before the pandemic, Dillard was a very social person, so cutting off her social life because of COVID was hard at first, she said.
“Once everything opened back up again, I was like, ‘Wait, I’m not ready for it,’” Dillard said.
The CDC has revised its masking guidance since vaccines became more accessible to note that fully vaccinated people can resume life largely as pre-pandemic normal without wearing a mask, though it recommends masking for unvaccinated people still.
In Galveston County, about 51 percent of residents 12 years old or older are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.
But the pandemic shifted social norms and for some people, returning to the cultural standards of pre-COVID life might be a challenge, said Thomas Fergus, associate professor in the Psychology and Neuroscience Department at Baylor University.
Although Fergus hasn’t seen any research about social norms of masking during the pandemic, he can hypothesize that some people might get comfort out of wearing a mask, especially people with social anxiety, he said.
“If you’re wearing a mask, you may think it’s harder for others to evaluate you,” Fergus said. “There could be a sense of concealment that may make you less concerned if people evaluate you.”
The mask might make the wearer harder to recognize, which could be a comfort to some, he said.
A mask makes Dillard comfortable, she said.
“I guess it’s kind of a security blanket type situation where you get comfortable with it,” Dillard said.
She also is still worried about the virus, she said. Both she and her husband have been taking precautions, especially when inside.
“When Texas lifted all the restrictions, I went to a food truck and I called my order in and somebody went and stood right behind me and I was so uncomfortable because I’m so used to 6 feet apart,” Dillard said. “I guess there is a learning curve with getting back to normal.”
‘GIVE ME 6 FEET’
For Bradley, the mask also is a nonverbal way to tell people to keep their distance.
“I would love to have a little button saying ‘please give me 6 feet,’” Bradley said.
Bradley self-identifies as at least a slight germaphobe, and the mask makes her feel safer when she has to go out, she said.
“We have only vaccinated for the main one and maybe a few variations,” Bradley said. “I don’t know how effective it is for the other ones. For me, I’d rather play it safe.”
Plenty of vaccinated people also still mask if they’re in a place that requires it or if a family member is unvaccinated, Fergus said.
‘ODD PERSON OUT’
At least in American culture, the masking norm likely will go away eventually, and that might make masking less comforting, Fergus said.
For now, workers at many stores or restaurants are still wearing masks, but that could change, he said.
“At some point, if the workers are not masked, you begin to potentially run the spotlight effect where you look like the odd person out,” Fergus said. “The comfort of anonymity — does that override the potential of someone thinking you’re odd, unusual, different?”
If the point of the mask is to go unnoticed, then at some point the only person wearing a mask might draw more attention, he said.