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Column: Hey, don’t throw away those masks yet!

What will I do with all my masks now?

Shortly after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its new mask guidelines Thursday, I saw several people ask that question on social media.

All those masks hanging from doorknobs, cluttering car seats, tucked in purses and pockets. Many people seemed to think they’d suddenly turned into nostalgic artifacts, like ticket stubs and campaign buttons.

The new recommendations arrived like a clap of thunder, a jolt from out of the blue, signifying, um, what exactly? Suddenly, fully vaccinated people were being told it was OK to go mask-free not only in most outdoor settings but in most indoor settings too, a change the news media described with words such as unexpected, abrupt, surprising, confusing.

When I heard, I was out for a walk, occasionally checking the news, with a trusty blue mask strapped around my wrist just in case.

Just in case what? I’m fully vaccinated, along with 36% of Americans, and have trusted the experts who say that makes me safe walking outdoors without a mask as long as I’m not in a crowd. But I’ve kept my mask handy in case I wanted to pop into a store, or for the times I encounter people wearing masks. When masked walkers approach, I either slip my mask on to be polite or step far out of the way. I don’t think either of those gestures is necessary for health reasons, they’re simply an easy way to show respect for others.

But this new mask guidance is a big leap into foreign territory, psychologically as well as practically.

To be clear, the CDC isn’t saying the pandemic is over. It urges vaccinations and apparently believes the new guidelines will encourage them. It says we should continue to follow local mask rules.

Still, the news left a lot of people disoriented, as if we’d thought we were running a marathon but it turned out to be a 10K. As if we were in the middle of six-part Netflix series that was canceled after episode 4. The pacing was off.

Even many experts have sounded disoriented.

“It feels like a huge shift, and I’m not going to follow it,” Dr. John Swartzberg, an infectious disease specialist and clinical professor emeritus at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Public Health, told the New York Times. He noted, however, that the CDC had data to back up its decision.

“The most important point,” he said, “is that the CDC is putting responsibility back on individuals. Each individual should look at what the CDC is recommending and see if that fits for them.”

Uh-oh. The trick with individual responsibility is that individuals are different. What fits for one person may not fit for another, as surely as masks aren’t one-size-fits-all even though they pretend to be.

As a result, one unsurprising consequence of the surprising announcement is that a new version of mask shaming and blaming immediately broke out. A major target? Vaccinated people who intend to keep wearing masks. They’re being mocked as silly, prissy, stupid, elite.

David Kronig, a Wisconsin man with not quite 1,300 Twitter followers, spoke for a lot of those people Thursday when he tweeted: “Hi hello, it’s me, your immunocompromised friend. I’m fully vaxxed but still gonna be wearing masks for a long time because there’s insufficient data to know whether the vaccine will actually protect me. Please be kind about it and don’t make me justify my caution.”

Proof that his tweet struck a sympathetic chord was that by Friday afternoon, it had been liked 174,000 times.

(He had the good humor to tweet later, “Good morning to my new followers who joined because of my unexpected viral tweet yesterday! I look forward to disappointing you with my future content!”)

As we move deeper into this foreign territory of new mask recommendations, it’s important to remain respectful of people whose choices don’t risk harming us. A vaccinated person who still wears a mask is not a threat.

On the other hand, unvaccinated people who don’t wear masks may be risks to themselves or others. Even so, shaming and blaming them isn’t persuasive.

Whenever I write about the value of masks, I get emails from a few people saying: Stop living in fear! Live your life!

Live is the operative word here, always has been, still is. In the midst of a plague, we all want to stay healthy and alive. Respectful people want to help others stay that way, too, knowing that we’re all connected. That’s not fear. That’s common sense for the common good.

So what will I do with all my masks now? Keep them. Tuck one in a pocket when I go out. Wear one when recommended and maybe sometimes when it’s not. We adapt as we go. Liberation is coming but the war’s not over.

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