Whenever Joe Glickman heads out for groceries, he places an N95 mask over his face and tugs a cloth mask on top of it. He then pulls on a pair of goggles.
He has used this safety protocol for the past 14 months. It did not change after he contracted the coronavirus in November. It did not budge when, earlier this month, he became fully vaccinated. And even though President Joe Biden said on Thursday that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear a mask, Glickman said he planned to stay the course.
In fact, he said, he plans to do his grocery run double-masked and goggled for at least the next five years.
Even as a combination of evolving public health recommendations and pandemic fatigue lead more Americans to toss the masks they have worn for more than a year, Glickman is among those who say they plan to keep their faces covered in public indefinitely.
For people like Glickman, a combination of anxiety, murky information about new virus variants and the emergence of an obdurate and sizable faction of vaccine holdouts means mask-free life is on hold — possibly forever.
“I have no problem being one of the only people,” said Glickman, a professional photographer and musician from Albany, New York. “But I don’t think I’m going to be the only one.”
Whether made of bedazzled cloth or polypropylene, masks have emerged as a dystopian political flashpoint during the pandemic. A map of states that enforced mask mandates corresponds closely with how people in those states voted for president.
Last year, protesters staged rallies against official requirements to wear masks, built pyres to burn them in protest and touched off wild screaming matches when confronted about not wearing them inside supermarkets.
But as more Americans become vaccinated and virus restrictions loosen, masks are at the center of a second round in the country’s culture brawl. This time, people who choose to continue to cover their faces have become targets of public ire.
In interviews, vaccinated people who continue to wear masks said they are increasingly under pressure, especially in recent days; friends and family have urged them to relax, or even have suggested that they are paranoid. On a recent trip to the grocery store, Glickman said he was stared down by a man who entered, unmasked.
“I’m confused,” the retired news anchor Dan Rather wrote on Twitter last week as backlash mounted on the platform to those still masked. “Why should people care if someone wants to wear a mask outside?”
Following the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 20 states repealed mask mandates or issued orders that gave vaccinated people exemptions from wearing masks. This week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that starting Wednesday, New York state would also follow the CDC. A handful of other states said they were still reviewing their rules.
But for some people, no newfound freedom will persuade them to reveal their faces just yet. After a year, they say they have grown accustomed to the masks and glad for the extra safety they provide.
A day after the CDC’s announcement, George Jones, 82, a retired mail carrier, stood in the sunshine outside of the General Grant Houses where he lives in Harlem in New York City and said his blue surgical mask — though uncomfortable and inconvenient — would stay put for at least another year.
“I’m in no hurry; why should I be in a hurry?” said Jones, who became fully vaccinated about a month and a half ago. Until New York City reaches a higher level of vaccination — just 40% are completely vaccinated — he believes it is too risky to unmask. “Being around is more important. That’s what counts. I’m an old man — I’d like to be around as long as I can.”
On Broadway, a group of young men walked past him, with not a mask in sight. Jones said he understood: “Young people, they figure they’re invulnerable — and I hope they are.”
Public health data shows that masking and social distancing have most likely had far-reaching positive impacts, beyond slowing the spread of COVID-19. While over 34,000 adults died from influenza in the 2018-19 season, this year deaths are on track to remain in the hundreds, according to CDC data. Mask wearers say their seasonal allergy symptoms seem to be lessened.
Leni Cohen, 51, a retired kindergarten teacher from New York City who has a compromised immune system, said she planned to continue wearing a mask when she helped out as a substitute teacher. But what she would like more is for her students to stay masked.
“Kindergartners, while adorable, are quick to share their secretions,” Cohen wrote in an email listing the illnesses, including colds, strep throat, pneumonia, influenza and parvovirus, that she has caught from her students over the years.
“This year is so different!” she continued. “The kids are not sucking on their hair or putting classroom objects or thumbs in their mouths. Their mouths and noses are covered, so I’m (mostly) protected from their sneezes and coughs. I can see keeping up with masks. It is the safest I’ve ever felt in a classroom full of 5- and 6-year-olds.”
Barry J. Neely, 41, a composer from Los Angeles, fell ill with the coronavirus in March 2020 and battled symptoms for months. He has also struggled with guilt over whether he had inadvertently infected people he came in contact with before his diagnosis — which came at a time when the government discouraged mask use.
He now plans to wear a mask whenever he feels under the weather, in perpetuity.
“It’s not hard to wear a mask,” Neely said. “It’s not hard in the least.”
He is taking his cue from several East Asian countries, he added, where wearing a mask when you are feeling sick is not just socially acceptable but seen as considerate.
“If I possibly spread a virus a year ago, and then learned that wearing a mask is important to prevent spreading this virus, then what’s the harm in wearing it if I have the common cold?” he said.
For a number of so-called perma-maskers, the decision is informed by trauma: They endured the coronavirus or witnessed loved ones die, and they say taking off their mask makes them feel terrifyingly vulnerable.
After contracting the coronavirus, Glickman fell ill with pneumonia. He still experiences gastrointestinal problems and neurological symptoms, including extreme lightheadedness and problems with his sight. “Floaters” swim in his field of vision, and on one occasion, he said, everything turned yellow.
Post-coronavirus trauma appears to be common: A survey of nearly 400 COVID patients by doctors at Agostino Gemelli hospital in Italy showed 30% developed post-traumatic stress disorder after a severe illness.
“There is an element of precaution that is brought on by the emotional and psychological impact with what I went through,” Glickman said of his masking. “I don’t think it is necessarily unjustified. I think it is somewhere in the middle.”
Cohen also said she recognized possible downsides: “At first, I thought, ‘This is great, I’m never going to get sick again!’” she said, of her plan to wear a mask to teach kindergarten going forward. “Then I realized when I’m trying to teach vowels they can’t see my mouth.”
A few say they have been surprised to find that they have grown to enjoy being hidden behind a mask, expressionless and anonymous.
“As a woman, we feel like we have to, when we go out in public, put on a little bit of makeup, eyeliner, blush,” said Keela Samis, 57, an attorney from St. Petersburg, Florida, who is vaccinated and does not plan to stop wearing a mask. “With a mask I don’t have to. It simplified my life.”
Samis added: “Even if I’m the only person on planet Earth that continues to wear the mask, if that’s what makes me feel comfortable, I’ll wear the mask.”