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Jim McDermottApril 20, 2022
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On April 18, a federal judge struck down the Biden administration’s mask mandate for public transportation. Decisions about masks now revert to local authorities, which means in some places (like New York) masks remain required, while in other places and venues, including many airlines, people are now free to do whatever they want.

But what should we choose? Catholics will no doubt have a variety of opinions. But for those who are wrestling with how to proceed, may I suggest a couple of reasons why I think it would be good for us to choose to keep wearing masks.

The Common Good

I don’t know about you, but my general attitude about getting Covid-19 at this point is “Oh, well.” In large part, that is a function of experience: Many vaccinated people I know have now gotten the virus. For a few of them, it was horrible. But for most, after a few days it was an annoying inconvenience. (The fact that these new waves always seem to coincide with family gatherings is…not great. Here’s praying for everyone’s summer vacation!)

In early February, I went through the same thing myself. Losing a week of life and work was definitely not my favorite life event; I will not be adding it to my Facebook timeline. Losing my sense of smell was just plain weird. But it was entirely manageable. To be afraid of getting Covid at this point feels like being afraid of getting the flu.

For Catholics who are wrestling with how to proceed, may I suggest a couple of reasons why I think it would be good for us to choose to keep wearing masks.

But my experience is not everyone’s. Sixteen months after vaccines first began to roll out there is still no vaccine for children under age 5. The shared wisdom has been that children suffer far fewer negative impacts from the disease, but a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March noted that at the peak of the Omicron variant, children under the age of 5 had to be hospitalized five times as often as they were under Delta. The danger was particularly severe for children under six months of age, who were admitted six times as often. These are children whose lives were in mortal danger and who are at such a young age it is impossible to say what the long-term impacts of the illness might be. Wearing a mask is about protecting them.

It’s also about protecting those with autoimmune disorders. A C.D.C. study last year found that almost half of vaccinated people who ended up being hospitalized with breakthrough cases were immunocompromised. When you take into account that people with autoimmune disorders make up only 3 percent of the U.S. population, that figure is astonishing. Two Johns Hopkins doctors writing in January in The New York Times noted their study in which transplant recipients with two vaccinations still had an 82-times-greater risk of infection and a 485-times-higher risk of hospitalization or death than the vaccinated general population overall.

The fact is, weakened immune systems often cannot create the antibodies that vaccinations are meant to provoke. So reassuring ourselves about our own mask choices by saying everyone is already vaccinated anyway—or if they’re not, then it’s their own fault—is a pretty significant misunderstanding of what is at stake here. The very weakest among us remain at risk—people who almost certainly include members of our own families and friends.

The very weakest among us remain at risk—people who almost certainly include members of our own families and friends.

In the Jesuits, we talk about exercising a “preferential option for the poor.” That means putting the needs of those who have less—less money, less status, less power—first. Who that is and what that means right now is clear.

The Pandemic Is Not Over

I don’t like saying this. I don’t like it when other people say it to me, either, usually after I’ve just said, “Remember during the pandemic when…,” as if it has long since passed. Insisting the pandemic continues when our situation is so radically different from two years ago makes it seem like you have some ghoulish desire for everyone to stay afraid and locked in their homes. Sorry, but no.

Things are much better than they were. Even in China, where entire cities are currently in lockdown, the rationale seems to be not some new frightening variant or related public health crisis but the country’s extreme commitment to a zero-Covid strategy. Omicron has proven more infectious than prior strains, but given its relative weakness, some are speculating that it might mark, more or less, the end of the pandemic proper.

But the truth is that is actually impossible to know. Dr. Kartik Chandran, a virologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine,noted in February that the development of Covid is not linear. “You have to think about this as an incredibly bushy tree of viruses, and we just have no idea which particular branch of the tree will fall at any given time.” Could the next variant be weaker still? Let’s hope so. But there is no guarantee.

To see life through the eyes of God is not a form of magical thinking. It is not to see things as we want them to be, but as they are.

The point is not that we should consequently still be afraid or act like it is April 2020 but that we should exercise common sense. To see life through the eyes of God is not a form of magical thinking. It is not to see things as we want them to be, but as they are.

We do not know what a new mutation might look like or whether we will see it coming before it is in our communities. But we do absolutely know one simple thing that can radically inhibit its transmission.

We’re Talking About Public Transport Here

I can’t speak for anyone else’s city, but here in New York, public transportation is not exactly hygienic. We are dealing with a situation in which every day tens of thousands of people have already gripped the poles, handrails and seats that we are using, where you actually need to look down before you sit to make sure you’re not going to be settling into a pool of spilled coffee, or worse. Subway cars are supposedly cleaned once a day. I would say that is aspirational.

In the case of Covid, the more important things are distance and good air circulation, neither of which is really a hallmark of public transportation. One study from New York University found that underground air in the largest transit systems in the Northeast contained two to seven times the number of toxins as fresh air. Forget about Covid: We should all wear masks in subways because the air underground is terrible for us.

In the case of Covid, the more important things are distance and good air circulation, neither of which is really a hallmark of public transportation.

A number of airlines worked to improve the quality of their air filtration during the pandemic via the installation of operating-room-quality HEPA filters. But if you are not paying the big bucks to fly fancy in first class, you are still jammed in cheek by jowl. And over and over again during the last two years, studies have revealed the same thing: Even in a high-filtration environment, masks are a significant part of prevention. “While there is a significant reduction in aerosol concentration due to the nature of the cabin ventilation and filtration system,” wrote one set of researchers into air travel last May, “this does not necessarily mean that there is a low probability or risk of in-flight infection. However, mask wearing, particularly high-efficiency ones, significantly reduces this risk.” And they noted this is of particular significance for those with seats in the middle and aft (a.k.a. sardine) sections.

It’s Not a Big Deal

It is a bellwether of our present moment that this seems like the most controversial thing to say. For some people, having to wear masks is a very big deal. It’s a synecdoche, the tip of the iceberg that represents an enormous mass of policies that they have found unfair and even unconstitutional.

Still, there’s a version of this feeling even for those who have been on board with the directions of the C.D.C. We have survived the last two years in large part by telling ourselves that eventually it will be over, that things will go back to how they were. It does not matter how often we are given the phrase “the new normal,” we are just not buying it; now give us back our 2019 lives.

But if we step back from everything that masks might “represent,” what are we really dealing with? Wearing something that can occasionally ride up your face or fog up your glasses. Sometimes it gets itchy—and so do a lot of things that we wear anyway because they look great or because we have to. (Albs and chasubles may sometimes look fabulous, but they are not always a fun ride.)

If Jesus’ life is meant to be any indication—and if it’s not, what am I doing here—God’s kingdom is also going to be built out of generosity and love.
 

Tell me there have not been times when you’ve gotten so used to wearing your mask you forget it is there. The other day I was so oblivious I ended up pushing a donut into mine. During the winter I started wearing one outside, not for safety but because it was warmer than a scarf.

I am not saying it is not an inconvenience, even a dramatic one at times. I cannot imagine that wearing a mask for 15 hours on the flight from Los Angeles to Sydney is an experience anyone is going to treasure. But circumstances like these are the exceptions. What we are being asked to deal with is more like having to stand for a half hour every day on a crowded bus. No one leaves the house hoping that is waiting for them; but when it happens you do not say I refuse to accept this, someone needs to give me their seat. You take it as it comes.

What Does the Kingdom of God Look Like?

In the Gospels, Jesus offers many parables imagining what the kingdom of God is like. And what many of them have in common is a sense of power hidden in unexpected and often lowly places. It is like the smallest seed that grows into the largest tree; it is like a treasure someone discovers in a field; it is like a tiny bit of leaven that slowly transformed the flour it was placed within.

In point of fact that is the story of Jesus himself, an infant born in a town so entirely backwater that people wonder whether anything good can come from there, who after a relatively short career as a religious leader is put to a shameful death alongside two thieves. His life is objectively pathetic. Yet just last weekend we celebrated how his faithful self-sacrificing love represented the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

Based on what we learn in Scripture, it seems like one thing we can pretty much guarantee about the actual kingdom of God is that it’s probably not going to look like we think it should. It’s not going to be the Vatican, Disneyland or some capitalist pipe dream where everyone can have everything they want. And if Jesus’ life is meant to be any indication—and if it’s not, what am I doing here—God’s kingdom is also going to be built out of generosity and love.

At this point I don’t want to have to wear a mask on any day that isn’t Halloween for pretty much the rest of time. But if I step back and look at this moment as another chance to pitch in and help bring that kingdom into life; if I ask what is the most generous or self-giving choice I can make right now, what do I see?

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