On July 22, 2020, Gov. Tim Walz implemented a mask mandate. Last Thursday he announced its May 14 end, too soon for some and not soon enough for others. For me the timing was about right. I was one of those people who even wore a mask outside, mainly to signal that I believed in the science behind it. I was also ready to stop wearing it, because if I truly believed in following the science, then being fully vaccinated protected me and others, which had always been the bottom line. I will still wear one in crowded places, as much to protect myself from the common cold as from COVID-19. But I hope I am mostly done with masks.
Now the tables have turned. Those of us who worried about getting or giving COVID can pursue life unencumbered. It is the unvaccinated who ought to feel worried. I know some people aren’t vaccinated for reasons other than personal choice, but I am thinking of the young man who set up a table on the lake near my home during the summer and fall. At one end his sign preached “No Masks Allowed” and at the other, “Vaccines Aren’t Safe.”
When I stopped to talk to him, he insisted I take my mask off because he couldn’t hear me. When I refused he said he was worried about me because I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my brain because of my mask. Eventually, he gave me three reasons he opposed masks: They infringe on personal freedom, impair cognitive function, and make it hard to hear. I gave him three reasons I supported them: They are a simple form of self-protection, protect others with whom one comes in contact, and if they are so damaging to the brain doctors wouldn’t wear them for the many procedures they perform. We had a similar discussion about vaccines: He said vaccines contain harmful ingredients and again cited personal freedom. Although I had to admit I had no idea what most vaccines contain, I insisted they offer protection to oneself and others.
I would like to run into that young man again, as I think about our conversation often. I would like to hear how he got along this winter. Did he get COVID? I would tell him about my 96-year-old mother-in-law who came down with it in December, but recovered quickly after receiving the monoclonal antibody therapy. What is his opinion about these treatments? I would be tempted to say I personally know 12 people in Iowa who got the virus (one was hospitalized for two months), a state which only briefly had a mask mandate. I have no close associates in Minnesota who got it. But this anecdotal evidence would be no more scientific than his.
I would tell him about the woman I met whose mother died when she was 9 years old. The mother contracted polio in the 1950s and spent her last days in an iron lung. I remember the fear that circulated during this period in my life as similar to last year’s fear, and how grateful our parents were when we children were vaccinated. I felt similarly on the days my children and I received our second shot.
I would also tell him that our conversation prompted me to become better informed: to read about what is contained in vaccines and to research the relationship between mask wearing and cognition. When I looked up the ingredients for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, most of them meant nothing to me as a lay person. But I now know they don’t contain eggs, preservatives, and latex. And I found one article saying that masks cause brain damage that is irreversible and in 10 years there will be an incredible increase in dementia. No research was cited. The article was in the same newspaper with a headline “Ten Absolute Truths About the 2020 Election and Election Fraud.”
Last week my friends and I toasted the fact that none of us got the virus, even though we are all over 70. We considered it our civic duty to stay well. We stayed home a lot and never hosted each other indoors. We didn’t need a mask mandate to figure out that it was wise to wear one. But we were glad to live in a state where we didn’t have to isolate completely. I felt safe going to Whole Foods, Walgreens, or even museums, because I knew everyone would be masked.
I am full of gratitude this May morning: to everyone who sacrificed this past year so that I and my loved ones could celebrate this moment. I am even grateful to the young man who challenged me to clarify my beliefs. And he can stop worrying about my brain function. Today I completed the crossword in record time.
Martha Bordwell of Minneapolis writes about current events, family life, and travel.
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