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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

I was at a screening of The Batman this week, and the action in the audience was nearly as tension-filled as the action on-screen. The cinema sold out, and we sat cheek by jowl, in alarmingly close proximity to other humans and their vapours. In the darkness, my eyes scanned the crowd: Was anyone still wearing their masks? Only about half the audience was.

The only thing more anxiety-making than learning to wear a mask in public is learning when to take one off. The rules at that stage were pretty clear: We were meant to wear our masks in the theatre when not eating and drinking (Most mask mandates in Ontario will be lifted next week.) I removed my mask to drink my Diet Coke, and sometimes forgot to put it back on.

Rules are one thing, and psychology is another: We all take signals from each other. If most people in that audience had kept their masks on, there would have been subtle societal pressure, even during a superhero movie, for everyone to remain masked. It felt weird and awkward, like the first day of high school. What were the other kids wearing? Were you brave enough to be the only one wearing uncool jeans?

On screen, Paul Dano’s Riddler was talking about how his mask gave him power. It transformed him from an insignificant nerd to a terrifying serial killer. He taunted Batman, in time-honoured fashion, with the idea that Batman wore a mask not so much to hide his identity as to camouflage the darkness within. Their masks made them the two faces of a single Gotham clean-up machine, justice on one side and vengeance on the other.

A couple of years ago, I would have paid no attention to the movie’s mask metaphors, and only concentrated on Robert Pattinson’s emo hair, which seems to have been stolen from The Cure’s Robert Smith. I was raised on a diet of superhero and horror movies, and gave little thought to the semiotics of facial coverings, apart from being amused that Michael Myers in Halloween did all his slashing while wearing a modified Captain Kirk mask.

That all changed, of course. Not just for me but for the rest of the world, too. In 2019, in the West at least, masks still held their dodgy place in the culture, as symbols of deceit and criminal intent. Then, for the past two years, masks assumed a completely new role: They made you a good guy, not a villain. Someone who thought about the welfare of others, especially people who were more vulnerable. Someone who was willing to do the right thing, even if it meant you were a bit inconvenienced and had to stumble around grocery stores with foggy glasses.

Human nature being the endlessly fascinating and yet predictable thing that it is, people fell into camps. Of course they did. There were people who insisted that “face diapers” were an affront to their freedom, and foretold the downfall of civilization. We saw fistfights in supermarkets and airplanes, restaurants and shopping malls, all over a scrap of public-health equipment.

Despite these headline-grabbing tantrums, the amazing fact is that most people did the right thing. They put on their big-girl masks and acted like adults. Even children acted more like adults than some adults. When I felt teary-eyed in early 2020 seeing my teenaged daughter wearing a mask for the first time, she rolled her eyes at me and said, “It’s just a mask, mom.”

Now, countless masks later – disposable ones found crumpled in pockets, fabric ones wadded up in the bottom of the dryer – we’re at another turning point, a pivot in our collective behaviour. I know we’re nearing the end because COVID-testing companies are sending me St. Patrick’s Day marketing messages with the subject line, “Kiss me, I’m Covid-free.” I know we’re reaching the end because the city’s snowbanks have melted to reveal a tangle of discarded masks plastered to the sidewalks, like an archeological record of the pandemic.

This is going to be another time of uncertainty, and we know that humans are about as fond of uncertainty as cats are of taking baths. With politicians lifting mask mandates and public-health officials basically throwing up their hands, we’ll have to take charge of our decision-making around masks. Some of this will be situational, obviously: the risk of being at a party indoors with family is different than the risk of being in an enclosed space with hundreds of strangers.

Many of us will choose to err on the side of caution for a while longer. As my colleague André Picard wrote recently, “We should also recognize that some people – particularly frail elders and the immunocompromised – are at far greater risk. Donning a mask a little bit longer to protect our neighbours is not too much to ask.”

It will be a period of awkwardness and anxiety, which can be made less fraught if we all treat each other like well-meaning individuals and not members of some mythical tribe. What we don’t need is people harassing those who continue to wear a mask (which, by the way, half of Ontarians say they intend to do, according to an Angus Reid poll).

The past couple of years have shown that we have a remarkable capacity for fellow-feeling. Perhaps we can continue to channel the words of an earlier, gravel-voiced Batman, who said in The Dark Knight Rises: “The mask is not for you. It’s to protect the people you care about.”

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