face mask covid park outdoors
A couple wearing masks sits under blooming Japanese Cherry Blossom trees in Central Park amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 08, 2021 in New York City.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
  • Outdoor masking has done little to reduce the spread of COVID, and it's finally going away.
  • If you'd rather not wear a mask outside, don't, and don't worry about who's judging you.
  • But if other people keep wearing masks outside, you shouldn't care. It's their face, not yours.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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The CDC today is giving formal permission for Americans to do something that much of the country has already been doing for months: Taking off your mask when engaging in most outdoor activities.

The CDC says this is okay to do if you're vaccinated and in a more limited set of outdoor situations even if you aren't. This makes sense given that the best research we have shows outdoor transmission is very rare even among unvaccinated people. That weight of evidence is also a reason widespread outdoor masking has been mostly limited to certain cities with very liberal electorates and a why the practice is a little puzzling even to COVID-conscientious people from other parts of the country.

There are some limited situations where outdoor masking has been appropriate for the unvaccinated – like crowded sporting events and rallies, where the CDC continues to recommend them even for vaccinated people – but by and large, outdoor masks have done little to address the spread of COVID.

The government's failure to effectively delineate between low-risk activities (like walking around maskless in a park) and high-risk activities (like dining at an indoor restaurant) has confused the public and likely contributed to the spread of COVID, which is frustrating, but fortunately the vaccines have us on the way out of the pandemic now and we only have a few months left to argue about who's being reckless and who's being ridiculous.

Not everyone is thinking about you

A lot of people have been very eager for this new guidance to come out, but I think what they most want can't really come from the government. Listening to CDC guidance is optional, and if you agree with everything I just said, nothing has been stopping you from taking your mask off outside. Even if outdoor masking is technically mandated by the government where you are, you're not going to get arrested for going maskless – hell, NYPD officers themselves have been flagrantly violating New York's mask mandate for months.

What people really wanted from this guidance was to stop feeling judgment from their fellow citizens for not wearing a mask outside. This applies both to conservatives like Tucker Carlson, who fantasized in his monologue last night about turning social opprobrium back on the die-hard maskers who won't take theirs off, and also to lots of liberals I know in New York, who just know that everyone is glaring them whenever they take their masks off and would really like them to stop.

I would note first that a good fraction of that opprobrium is simply imagined. Not everyone who looks at you is silently judging you. Most of them are not even really thinking about you.

So if someone looks at you as you walk down the street maskless, do not get defensive or suspicious. Smile. Say hello, if you like. Even if that person is silently judging you (again, likely not) what are they going to do? They're probably as desperately afraid of confrontation as you are.

Or maybe they, too, are looking for the courage to remove a mask they know is really not useful in this particular context. By normalizing a bare face outdoors - showing that you don't need to be ashamed for doing something that a rational person realizes is safe - maybe you're helping them get over their own psychological block.

If you do get yelled at (unlikely), go ahead and yell back

Or maybe, in a rare instance, someone will scold you. Reason magazine's Robby Soave, who lives in Washington D.C., says he's been yelled at "something like six times" for exercising outdoors with no mask. And I get it, people find it unpleasant to be scolded. But you are being perfectly safe and they are being overcritical, so why do you care what they think? Feel free to ignore them.

Or feel free to remind them that masks are useful indoors but aren't important in this outdoor context. Or inform them that you've been vaccinated. Or, after today, you can even say the CDC says what you're doing is in line with recommended behavior. Don't escalate this into some big, embarrassing dispute, but do feel free to stick up for yourself.

Ultimately, the government can't force members of the public to approve of your personal choices. It can't force them to keep their disapproval to themselves. And you can't force these things either. What you can control is how you feel about what other people think of you. The solution lies within: only you can make you feel okay with your mask off.

What other people do with their faces is their own problem

If you want to keep routinely wearing a mask outside after you've been vaccinated, I think you're being overly cautious. But it's your face we're talking about here, and if you want to keep wearing a mask on the sidewalk, that's your business.

That's the attitude everyone should take. If we can walk past people wearing cargo shorts or crop-tops on the street without our heads exploding, we can also tolerate some unnecessary masks.

I think people's fixation on other people's outdoor mask wearing, or lack thereof, goes back to the silent judgment thing. If you're wearing a mask that I don't think is needed, I could take that as a sign that you must be silently judging me from behind that mask. But (1) perhaps not and (2) so what if so?

An unfortunate feature of an infectious disease pandemic is that it gives people more cause to be busybodies about other people's behavior. To be clear, I mean it gives them more good cause - other people's behavior really does affect public health, and people have reason to care. Sometimes, that caring has focused on the wrong behaviors, as with beach shaming. But one additional benefit of the pandemic waning is that there is less and less cause to pass judgment on other people's daily behaviors and we can all go back to minding our own business more often.

And that can start with you. If you want other people to mind their own business, try also minding your own.

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