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To mask or not to mask? In this uncomfortable in-between time where pandemic restrictions are lifting but the threat of the coronavirus (and its variants in particular) lingers, that is the question many are struggling to answer.

Public-health authorities aren’t much help, because their advice is all over the map.

In Canada, mask mandates have already lifted in Alberta and B.C., and Saskatchewan will follow suit soon.

The Public Health Agency of Canada has published guidance on mask-wearing, which says, in short, that fully vaccinated people can eschew mask-wearing in most settings, especially if they know the vaccination status of others.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued even more liberal guidelines, saying mask-wearing is essentially voluntary, but some people may want to continue with the practice in crowded settings such as public transit and large groups.

At the other end of the spectrum, the World Health Organization is urging countries to maintain masking rules, largely because of the threat of the faster-spreading Delta variant, and low rates of vaccination around the world.

So what’s an individual to do with this contradictory advice?

As always, context matters. We tend to look at pandemic mitigation measures in isolation. But – in addition to face-covering, vaccination rates and status – physical distancing, ventilation and levels of circulating virus are all part of the equation that can help us determine our individual levels of risk and comfort.

People tend to interact principally with those with similar beliefs. So if you’re fully vaccinated, those in your social circle likely are as well, so you can feel pretty confident about having a party now with them as your guests. But heading to the grocery store or taking the subway and encountering those who might be unvaccinated is another matter.

While Canada is a world leader on vaccination – 68 per cent of adults have received at least one dose and 35 per cent two doses – that means about two-thirds of those around you are still not fully vaccinated.

We are seeing a curious paradox in jurisdictions that have lifted mask mandates: Those throwing off their masks most eagerly tend to be those who are least likely to have been vaccinated.

These COVID-19 skeptics/deniers are now being pummelled by the coronavirus, and fuelling the spread of the Delta variant – a reminder that making public-health measures optional is often counterproductive.

What will be increasingly obvious as the rules change is that masking is not merely functional – it’s also symbolic and politically charged.

Wearing a mask – especially for the fully vaccinated – is a way of acknowledging the pandemic is not quite over yet. For many, it’s a gesture of solidarity.

Face-covering can be a partisan statement, especially in the U.S., where “freedom-loving” Republicans balk at masking, and “nanny state” Democrats continue to wear masks voluntarily.

As we ease out of the pandemic, masking is also becoming another uncomfortable reminder of inequality, with essential workers (many of them racialized) such as store clerks, restaurant staff and cleaners having to be masked while many clients are not, regardless of vaccine status.

That sort of double standard and societal cleavage is not helpful.

What we really need going forward is an acceptance that personal choice cuts both ways. Mask-wearing should be seen – as it is in many parts of Asia – as a gesture of consideration toward others, and as a necessity for some, particularly those at higher risk of infections.

Instead of doffing our masks en masse, we should be thinking about how to use them more effectively. Pandemic rules have resulted in a dramatic drop in respiratory conditions such as common colds, pneumonia and exacerbations of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease).

In the past 18 months, deaths from influenza have essentially disappeared. So why would we go back to accepting thousands of annual deaths as normal? Mask-wearing could remain mandatory during flu season for staff and visitors in high-risk settings, including hospitals and nursing homes.

Similarly, when we begin returning to offices, why would we tolerate that the guy with the hacking cough three desks over is sitting there unmasked?

Masks are also being adopted as a symbol of climate activism. As the threat of wildfires grows and huge clouds of smoke are expected over many cities this summer, why would we not mask up against the dangers of particulates in the air, as we have done in response to a virus?

Going forward, wearing masks will remain an emotionally charged, but sometimes useful practice. Instead of relegating them to the garbage bin, it’s best to keep a couple tucked away in our back pockets.

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