Young school teacher

The edict from the Centers for Disease Control came down May 13, catching most of us by surprise. The new guidance: Anyone fully vaccinated against COVID-19 should feel free to do whatever they want indoors or outdoors without wearing a mask or practicing social distancing.

After more than a year of face coverings, compulsive hand washing and avoiding tightly packed crowds, the CDC’s announcement felt like liberation, a giant step in the direction of normal. At least to me it did. But maybe I’m strange, because over the next few days I kept catching glimpses of people wearing masks in the oddest places.

Like the woman walking her Shih Tzu up my street alone the morning after the CDC relaxed its guidelines — just her and her ragamuffin pup and no one else around as far as the eye could see.

And the guy wearing an Arizona Cardinals mask at a stoplight. In his Honda Accord. With the windows rolled up tight.

And the guy on the golf course wearing a mask while playing. Alone.

Perhaps those folks were unvaccinated or suffering from compromised immune systems. Or making a fashion statement. I doubt it. What’s more likely is, they’re proof of something reaffirmed by our conduct as a species throughout the pandemic. 

Human beings suck at science.

Incidentally, I include myself in this blanket statement. An embarrassing revelation: Last February, before the pandemic struck Arizona in earnest and long before we faced a mask mandate, I went to eBay and ordered $185 in N95 respirator masks. It was a purchase driven by fear. I was afraid masks might go out of stock. Or life might turn into a reboot of the Dustin Hoffman flick “Outbreak.”

The key word in the above sentence? Fear. It’s an emotion, and emotions are really what drive us, not intellect, facts or science. If the pandemic hammered home anything for me about human nature, it’s that we make decisions with our hearts. Then our brains ratify what the heart decides. 

It’s why salesmen insist you test-drive the car before you talk price: So you’ll fall in love with that convertible, then finance it for 108 months at an astronomical interest rate.

If mankind truly “listened to the science” — a phrase we’ve heard a few million times over the past 15 months — then McDonald’s wouldn’t sell $35 billion worth of Big Macs, Cokes and fries annually. None of us would stare at a screen for eight hours a day — guilty as charged — nor would any Arizonan leave the house without slathering on sunscreen and hydrating like a porpoise.

The truth? We follow the science when it relieves our fears, when it’s ridiculously convenient or when it offers us some social cachet. That last point is inescapable when you consider masking habits. For every friend I have who has treated wearing a mask as a sign of weakness or a massive curtailment of freedom by the government, I have another friend who sports the mask to signify their virtue. After a year, I’m not sure which one is more annoying, the “masks are for sheep” badasses or the “I’m wearing a mask because I care about you so much” herd. 

Me, I chose to follow the science on unmasking, as I did with getting a vaccine. Wearing a mask wasn’t difficult. Maybe masks kept us physically safe, or maybe they merely provided some psychological comfort. Either way, on the day the CDC said vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks anymore, I took mine off and was glad to be rid of it.

The only shame is that a mask was great for hiding my grimace when out in public.