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An excruciating consequence of the removal of provincial mask mandates is that we have all become audience to the worst display of hollow sanctimony and vain proselytizing ever to be ascribed to a little piece of material. Those who continue to wear masks, we are told, are moral leaders – righteous servants – who wear their sense of collective responsibility literally on their faces. Those who do not are selfish brutes who hate your grandma and possibly believe in eugenics. There is no in-between.

MP Peter Julian observed that most people in his local grocery store were still wearing masks because his B.C. riding of New Westminster is one where “people care about their neighbours.” Former Ontario MPP Cheri DiNovo applauded teachers who continue to wear masks as “educators who care about everyone’s health.” Thomas Piggott, medical officer of health for Peterborough, Ont., tweeted that he will continue to wear his mask because he cares “about protecting myself & those more vulnerable around me.” And many doctors have taken to social media to lament the apparent self-centredness of those who have removed their masks, one going so far as to call it “Kafkaesque” to be reminded to be kind to those people.

At the risk of contributing to this modern-day Der Process, I would point out that we are all trying to find our bearings after two years of upheaval, and assuming the worst of those who are navigating back to normal at a different speed only contributes to the polarization that has intensified over the last few months.

For the majority of the pandemic, Canadians actually enjoyed a rather extraordinary type of cohesiveness, which was interrupted when vaccines were turned into a political wedge issue, and later, when mandates sparked the protests that shut down central Ottawa. But for the first 18 or so months, there was a palpable mood of social generosity where we all seemed to understand that everyone was just trying to adjust to an absurd situation. It would serve us well to adopt that same spirit as we lumber our way through this new situation now.

Granted, it is hard to pivot back to a more individualistic mindset when collective responsibility has been emphasized for the past two years. Indeed, this whole pandemic has been about sacrificing for the greater good: closing down schools to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, wearing cloth masks to preserve superior respirators for health care workers, getting vaccinated for the sake of those who are too young or otherwise unable to be vaccinated, and so on. We relied on the government to provide direction – or in many cases, to explicitly guide behaviour. But eventually, authorities were going to have to yield that control back to the individual.

That time to do so might as well have been now, since the evidence is clear that the emergency phase of the pandemic is over (and let’s hope it stays that way). Though Ontario only scrapped its mask mandate this week, Alberta did so weeks ago and it has continued to see a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and death. Even without mask mandates, the majority of us can trust that our vaccines will keep us out of hospital, and trust the evidence that shows that children too young to be vaccinated are still of extremely low risk of developing serious illness. Those of us who are concerned about bringing COVID-19 home to an immunocompromised family member, or who are simply anxious by nature (*slowly raises hand*), can continue to wear high-quality masks in public spaces.

It is true that masks remain the most cost-effective and least intrusive mitigation measure we have, and for that reason some were pushing to delay the removal of Ontario’s mask mandate by an extra couple of weeks. But the social costs have to be considered along with the potential benefits to public health; a government that maintains even minimally intrusive emergency measures for weeks beyond the reasonable parameters of an emergency is a government that is overstepping its role.

The job of federal and provincial governments now is to monitor the situation to determine if and when certain policies should be reinstated, and to double-down on efforts to encourage vaccinations and boosters, which remain our best tool to control the pandemic. The job for the rest of us is to resist the urge to view our unmasked shopping compatriots as homicidal maniacs – or conversely, to see masked shoppers as paranoid freaks – and recognize that this is just another weird pandemic adjustment period for everyone. Contrary as it might seem after two years of collective-mindedness, when it comes to masking now, we all need to mind our own business.

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