Give Yourself the Gift of Not Caring at All Whether People Wear Masks Outdoors

Brookline has become the target of nationwide scorn for keeping its “mandate” in place, but can everyone just take a breather please?

Boston University student wearing a mask on campus, in Boston, MA on Oct. 6, 2020. (Photo by Stan Grossfeld/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

After months and months of research into methods of transmission for the coronavirus, there remain some mysteries about how it gets passed from person to person. But this much is clear: Wearing a mask outside has next to no effect on transmission. CDC guidance has been updated to reflect this fact, and now the state of Massachusetts has updated its guidance as well, which as of last week no longer mandates that you don a face covering outdoors if you’re able to distance from other people.

And yet, as you have certainly heard or seen at some point in the past few days, masks have not disappeared from fresh-air spaces in our city just yet. Take a stroll around Boston these days, and you’re likely to find many, if not most, of your neighbors are keeping the masks on outside for now—public health experts be damned. But before you decide to craft your own bespoke opinion on the matter and do so publicly, stop to consider how pointless that is, and how detached our conversations about this have become from what is important and what is not.

Consider for just one second simply letting it go.

It’s an even more important attitude to adopt given the current kerfuffle over masking. Our adherence to outdoor masking has, regrettably, captured national attention, and while it’s playing out in urban areas around the country, Massachusetts has been singled out for scorn. After Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement that he was relaxing the mask mandate, noted easy target Brookline opted to keep its outdoor mask mandate, and became a social media sensation this past weekend, as critics near and far salivated at the thought of over-educated coastal elites suddenly rejecting the virtues of science. Then, once the subject got the Atlantic treatment yesterday in a story that depicted the region as crawling with Cassandras addicted to pandemic precautions and accompanied by a picture of a PPE-clad teacher in front of the Massachusetts State House (notably, an image that dated back to August 2020), the floodgates of judgment were flung open.

If you for some reason need to keep your blood at a raging boil at all times, feel free to continue getting worked up about outdoor masks in one direction or the other. That is your right as an American—to some, the most sacred right of them all. Far be it from me to stop you from mocking Brookline. I love the place, but the land of filthy rich, pious liberal scolds and “In This House, We Believe In Science!” yard signs occasionally has it coming. Plus some of the jokes were undeniably pretty good:

Still, the fever pitch of the fighting over this far outstrips the number of reasonable arguments that can be made about it. Yes, given what we know now, wearing a mask in the great wide open will not, it seems, make it any more or less likely that you’ll catch the coronavirus or give it to anyone else. We didn’t know that a year ago, and wearing a mask outside was a reasonable, reasonably non-invasive thing to do. Given that ease of use, and the potentiali8 loss of faith in CDC mask guidance thanks to its earlier notable failure on the subject, it’s hardly surprising that people aren’t leaping to follow this new guidance. Or that they simply see no reason to stop doing something they feel safer doing as the pandemic continues to rage on around us.

But here is what we do know. Mask mandates don’t hurt anyone. Despite what the occasional crank might insist, no one has ever been made less safe by wearing one. Conversely, hardly anyone has been punished for breaking the rules—not a soul in the city of Boston has ever paid an outdoor mask-related fine, and the number statewide is minuscule (for unclear reasons, Billerica seems to have been strangely enthusiastic about writing people mask-related tickets, having given out a tops-in-the-Commonwealth 19 fines). The worst-case scenario in most corners of the state has always been a sideways glance from a neighbor for daring to go for a barefaced jog. Fleeting social ostracism from strangers is not nothing, but it’s hardly enough to register as an abusive authoritarian attack on individual liberty as far as I’m concerned.

Outdoor masks and outdoor mask “mandates” don’t hinder business. They won’t take your job or bring it back. They won’t affect your wedding plans and will neither speed up nor push back your next family vacation or visit to grandma. They cannot travel through time and change any of the million sacrifices any of us made this past year-and-a-half to slow down a pandemic that caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. What’s done is done, and few if any of the personal hygiene decisions any of us make between our front doors and walking to the nearest CVS will make any difference at all.

This approach to the pandemic—pro-caution and anti-scold—has been the right one all along. In this magazine, we’ve urged you to socialize outdoors as much as possible, while also advising you against self-deputizing as mask police or screaming at your neighbors. We’ve championed the benefits of patio dining, while also suggesting you should embrace the post-vaccination life by reacquainting yourself with the city’s indoor good times. We’ve catalogued how the histrionics often linked to “bubble” culture can easily get out of hand, and why you should fight the urge at every turn to get pissed off at vaccination line-cutters. The takeaway for everyone who’s been following along, I would hope, is that an all-consuming obsession with what other people are doing serves no one well, least of all you. In an era when we are all varying degrees of stressed and grieving and trying to figure out what our future looks like, getting worked up about someone else’s outdoor mask use or lack thereof is adding worries you simply don’t need.

So as we navigate these complex days of increasing local vaccination rates and diminishing case counts in Mass., take a deep breath—a giant gulp of spring air, perhaps along the Harbor Walk, or on a long stroll up the Emerald Necklace.

And consider this an invitation to enjoy the peace and serenity of, just this once, keeping your mouth shut.