Masking Didn’t Become Normal

Or did it?

AP (“As 2023 holidays dawn, face masks have settled in as an occasional feature of the American landscape“):

The scene: A crowded shopping center in the weeks before Christmas. Or a warehouse store. Or maybe a packed airport terminal or a commuter train station or another place where large groups gather.

There are people — lots of people. But look around, and it’s clear one thing is largely absent these days: face masks.

Yes, there’s the odd one here and there, but nothing like it was three years ago at the dawn of the COVID pandemic’s first winter holidays — an American moment of contentiousness, accusation and scorn on both sides of the mask debate.

As 2023 draws to an end, with promises of holiday parties and crowds and lots of inadvertent exchanges of shared air, mask-wearing is much more off than on around the country even as COVID’s long tail lingers. The days of anything approaching a widespread mask mandate would be like the Ghost of Christmas Past, a glimpse into what was.

Look at it a different way, though: These days, mask-wearing has become just another thing that simply happens in America. In a country where the mention of a mask prior to the pandemic usually meant Halloween or a costume party, it’s a new way of being that hasn’t gone away even if most people aren’t doing it regularly.

“That’s an interesting part of the pandemic,” says Brooke Tully, a strategist who works on how to change people’s behaviors.

“Home delivery of food and all of those kind of services, they existed before COVID and actually were gaining some momentum,” she says. “But something like mask-wearing in the U.S. didn’t really have an existing baseline. It was something entirely new in COVID. So it’s one of those new introductions of behaviors and norms.”


It tends to be situational, like the recent decision from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospital system to reinstate a mask mandate at its facilities starting Dec. 20 because it’s seeing an increase in respiratory viruses. And for people like Sally Kiser, 60, of Mooresville, North Carolina, who manages a home health care agency.

“I always carry one with me,” she says, “’cause I never know.”

She doesn’t always wear it, depending on the environment she’s in, but she will if she thinks it’s prudent. “It’s kind of like a new paradigm for the world we live in,” she says.

It wasn’t that long ago that fear over catching COVID-19 sent demand for masks into overdrive, with terms like “N95” coming into our vocabularies alongside concepts like mask mandates — and the subsequent, and vehement, backlash from those who felt it was government overreach.

Once the mandates started dropping, the masks started coming off and the demand fell. It fell so much so that Project N95, a nonprofit launched during the pandemic to help people find quality masks, announced earlier this month that it would stop sales Monday because there wasn’t enough interest.

Anne Miller, the organization’s executive director, acknowledges she thought widespread mask usage would become the rule, not the exception.

“I thought the new normal would be like we see in other cultures and other parts of the world — where people just wear a mask out of an abundance of caution for other people,” she says.

But that’s not how norms work, public safety or otherwise, says Markus Kemmelmeier, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

In 2020, Kemmelmeier authored a study about mask-wearing around the country that showed mask usage and mandate resistance varied by region based on conditions including pre-existing cultural divisions and political orientation.

He points to the outcry after the introduction of seatbelts and seatbelt laws more than four decades ago as an example of how practices, particularly those required in certain parts of society, do or don’t take hold.

“When they first were instituted with all the sense that they make and all the effectiveness, there was a lot of resistance,” Kemmelmeier says. “The argument was basically lots of complaints about individual freedoms being curtailed and so forth, and you can’t tell me what to do and so forth.”

I remember a lot of commenters here declaring that they would continue to wear masks during cold and flu season—and, especially, on airplanes—indefinitely even after the mandates disappeared. Anecdotally, that hasn’t been the norm in the DC suburbs of Northern Virginia—an area that was on the higher end for compliance during the COVID peak and, indeed, well after masks became optional for those who had been vaccinated. And, while I only take two or three round-trip flights a year these days, I’m not seeing massive numbers masked up.

At the same time, it’s certainly radically more common than it used to be. Pre-COVID, the only people I saw wearing masks in public were those from Asia, where the practice is much more acculturated. Now, I see a lot of elderly folks and workers at grocery stores and the like wearing them.

Oddly, I continue to see the phenomenon that infuriated me during the mandate period: folks wearing masks in ways that are completely useless. At least a third of the aforementioned elderly and service economy workers I encounter with masks are wearing them over their chin or their mouth but not their nose. During the pandemic’s height, I took that as a Screw You. Now, I take it as I’m An Idiot.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Health, Society, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. gVOR10 says:

    At least a third of the aforementioned elderly and service economy workers I encounter with masks are wearing them over their chin or their mouth but not their nose. During the pandemic’s height, I took that as a Screw You. Now, I take it as I’m An Idiot.

    Have I mentioned lately the widely held notion that the electorate are a box of rocks?

  2. Scott says:

    I see a lot of older folks wear masks when they are out and about. And I think no one thinks anything of it. Haven’t been to the doctor lately so can’t tell whether people are sensible enough to wear a mask at a place where there are sick people.

  3. CSK says:


    In my neck of the woods, masks are either optional or mandatory in medical facilities. Nowhere else, though. Some people still wear them.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    At my work , pretty much anyone who has even a mild respiratory ailment wears a mask, but other than that we are pretty mask free. One or two people also seem to wear a mask if they feel others around them might have a respiratory illness.

  5. JKB says:

    The most effective measure is to stop talking into other people’s faces. Don’t point your spittle maker at their face. Yes, it means not looking them in the eyes. Similarly, if they are speaking into your face, you are far less likely to get their droplets in your mouth or nose if you aren’t looking down the barrel when it goes off.

    But rather than this simple cultural adjustment, people go for masks which cost money and forethought.

  6. Kathy says:

    I wear a mask at almost all time outside my apartment, sometimes outside my room. I haven’t had a cold, much less flu or trump disease, since March 2020. I love it.

    Imagine all I carp about Hell Week, the long nights, the rising at 4:30 to get samples, the hurried eating, the mind numbing and endless work, missing out on even watching TV to relax, coming in on weekends, and then add a cold on top of that.

    No, thanks.

    I am surprised hand sanitizer has disappeared from some places. People didn’t object to it, and some appreciated the convenience of a quick hand cleaning. I’ve seen it removed from shops, supermarkets, restaurants, etc. Half the time when a dispenser remains, it’s empty.

  7. EddieInCA says:

    I wear a N95 mask at all airports, airplanes, concerts, theatres, the subways, and buses. Without exceptions. Haven’t been sick since Jan. 2020, except for one bout of Covid, when I stupidly forgot my mask at a Green Day concert towards the end of the 2021 surge. I like not getting sick. I’ll keep doing masking in public, especially now, since numbers here in Los Angeles are in an uptick.

  8. Paul L. says:

    Mask Cult Panic and Unite!!!!
    Maybe we can suspend the Constitution again with the court decision Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905) that fined the unvaccinated.

  9. Grumpy realist says:

    @Paul L.: I suspect that if the US were to have a more dangerous pandemic (for all of what it did, COVID really hasn’t been that lethal) such as, say—a disease with the transmissibility of measles and the lethality of Ebola—mandated vaccinations would be strongly enforced. Either that or we would nail doors shut on houses with sick people a la Black Death and just wait.

    Whine as much as you want about your “civil rights” but if endulging in them means 50% of your neighbors die I doubt you will be allowed them. Learn from history.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    @Grumpy realist: I wonder what the overlap is between the “you can’t make me vaxx because Freedumb” crowd and the “you can’t restrict guns because Freedumb” populations. Both are willing to make their worlds a little more dangerous, especially to themselves but also to others, for a very specific notion of liberty that doesn’t seem to apply to (say) requiring a medical license in order to practice surgery…

  11. Mr. Prosser says:

    Here in one of the reddest parts of Colorado I see a few elderly folks and others obviously undergoing Chemo wearing masks. I plan to start now when at the grocery or among large crowds because it’s been nice not being sick with anything for the last couple of years. As Kathy says there is very little hand sanitizer in public spaces so I’ll carry some for ATMs, self-checkout and groceries.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Paul L.:
    I continue to be astounded that this is the issue that freaks out MAGAts. The triviality of it! To imagine that wearing a mask during a pandemic is some kind of assault on your liberty just reveals a bizarre and frankly silly notion of freedom. How weak and insecure must you be. How big a chip you have on your shoulder. But then, you’re some gaggle of imbeciles who think a trigger guard on a gun you keep in a house with children is an attack on your liberty requiring armed revolution.

    You people really are very small.

  13. Andy says:

    In my area of Colorado, I see people wearing masks much more often than before Covid, but the overall numbers are still small. As James notes, I see many wearing them badly and I wonder what the point is.

    With a beard and glasses, masks have never worked well for me, and I only wear them when required. I do ensure all my vaccinations are current.

    The biggest risk is visiting my sister in memory care. Masking has not been required there for a while now, but if I feel sick, I just avoid going altogether.

  14. Kathy says:


    As James notes, I see many wearing them badly and I wonder what the point is.

    I think of it as cargo cult prevention.

    I understand it more with people who have to wear masks, like the food service workers at the supermarket. That’s the same indifference we saw in the trump pandemic.

  15. de stijl says:

    I wear a good mask (and wear it properly) in any store or office setting. I don’t even think about it. It’s automatic. I wouldn’t go in without.

    A few months back I was going to buy groceries and realized I’d forgotten to bring a mask. I turned around and went home to pick one up.

    I don’t really notice or not whether other folks do. Mark that, I do sometimes notice when people do. But mostly I ignore it. It’s not my business. I’m there for a purpose and I basically ignore everybody else. I actively try to be a polite shopper and not cut anyone off and apologize with a quick “sorry about that” if I inadvertantly impede someone.

    I mask properly inside stores and public buildings and I basically do not give a fuck about what you think about that.

    I utterly do not care if someone judges me silently. It’s not my business and I don’t care a whit. Twice someone voiced their judgement at me verbally since mandatory masking stopped. Both times I replied “Thanks for your input” and continued on.

  16. Paul L. says:

    @Grumpy realist:
    Lockdowns, Masks and the Clot shot did nothing but maybe delay the inevitable.
    Covid Czar Andy Slavitt predicted 1.5 million deaths if we did nothing and 1.5 million died WITH Covid anyway.
    My neighbors in the Mask Cult are free to hid from the unclean by isolating like you.

  17. Grumpy Realist says:

    @Paul L.: even if your statements are true (which I don’t believe), you have totally left out consideration of the following:

    1. The original estimate as to how many possible deaths there could be if untreated was erroneous and it was in fact much more than 1.5 million. In which case the vaccinations did have a life-saving effect.
    2. Comparison of death rates from COVID between red states (with low vaccination rates) and blue states (with high vaccination rates) indicate that per capita a higher death rate in red states. Which would seem to indicate a benefit from the vaccine, no?
    3. Protection from long COVID and intense COVID by using vaccines. Mitigating the severity of a case of COVID and keeping one out of the ICU is beneficial as well.

    If you want to avoid vaccines, be my guest. But WHEN—not if—you come down with a case of something that we have a vaccine against, please at least have the guts and the courage to live with the consequences of your stupidity, quarantine yourself, and don’t use up scarce medical resources. You took the risk, live with the consequences.

  18. Kathy says:

    @Grumpy Realist:

    Be reasonable. If people don’t observe the lock downs, don’t wear masks, and don’t get vaccinated, ins’t that proof these things don’t work? Do I really need to ask this question?

  19. DrDaveT says:


    With a beard and glasses, masks have never worked well for me, and I only wear them when required. I do ensure all my vaccinations are current.

    See, we do have things in common after all. 🙂

    If you haven’t already discovered them, there are silicone inserts available that fit over the bridge of the nose inside the mask and below most glasses. They do a pretty good job of preventing the glasses-fogging-constantly thing. They are a pain to put on and off, and don’t work with every mask design, but if I’m going to be wearing the mask for a while I find it makes a big difference.

  20. Paul L. says:

    @Grumpy Realist:
    Correlation does not imply causation.
    Joe Biden promoting taking the Covid vaccine,
    “The majority of Covid deaths were unvaccinated.”
    Dishonestly counting all Covid deaths that occurred before the Covid vaccine was available as part of that.
    Counting a suicide also as a gun and a covid death.
    Long COVID is just depression.

  21. Gustopher says:

    @Grumpy Realist:

    Protection from long COVID and intense COVID by using vaccines.

    We don’t have enough data on long-covid to make any claims.

    There hadn’t been much research into post-viral malaise before Covid (people get long-flu, for lack of a better word), and we don’t even know if long-covid is particularly special. Nor do we have tests. Or a clear, universally accepted definition.

    You can make some educated guesswork — vaccines reduce risk of infection and lower viral load when infected, so they are probably a good thing — but unless something has changed recently, we don’t have a body of evidence that confirms this theory.

    (There are a few not-yet-reproduced studies that show minimal benefit on the long-covid front, but with a baseline of known-to-be-infected people.)

  22. DrDaveT says:

    @Paul L.:

    Dishonestly counting all Covid deaths that occurred before the Covid vaccine was available as part of that.

    Dude, you can’t possibly really be this un-self-aware*. Counting deaths from before the vaccine was available is only (partly, maybe, somewhat) dishonest if the vaccines actually save lives. Right? Otherwise, why would it matter whether you died before or after the ineffective vaccines were foisted on us?

    Please try to keep your alternative facts straight.

    *Actually, given that you literally argued from correlation a few minutes before stating “correlation does not imply causation,” maybe you can be that un-self-aware.

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @Paul L.:

    Long COVID is just depression.

    My friend whose life has been ruined by long COVID would like to punch you in the face. Repeatedly. While explaining to you that “it’s not a broken nose, it’s just depression.”

  24. Kathy says:


    I’d love to be able someday to explain that some truly execrable personage did not die of a gun shot wound to the head, but with a gun shot wound to the head.

  25. Matt Bernius says:

    Ya’ll remember that the person you are arguing with is also a global warming denier (and dabbles in the Georgia Election Conspiracy theories).

    I don’t think there is any argument you can make on this topic (or evidence you can supply) to move someone whose position is ultimately based on faith (and paying attention to only the facts that support that faith).

  26. Paul L. says:

    Biden claimed 10 out of 11 people who died of covid were unvaccinated to show how effective the the vaccine was (95%) while adding the 6-9 who died before there was a vaccine available to jack up the number.

    While explaining to you that “it’s not a broken nose, it’s just depression.”

    So someone with a mental illness wants to harm me physically instead of mentally because I don’t take their mental illness seriously enough.
    Sounds like feminist Jill Filipovic “The same is true of the seemingly growing consensus among social justice advocates that bigoted or simply emotionally triggering speech is akin to physical violence and should be regulated as such.”

  27. Paul L. says:

    @Matt Bernius:
    #Whataboutism RussiaGate Election Conspiracy theories, Hunter Biden’s Laptop is Russian disinformation, mass starvation from overpopulation and the Polar icecaps have melted.

  28. de stijl says:

    @Paul L.:

    Thanks for your input.

  29. dazedandconfused says:

    Around here (south of Seattle) I usually see one or two people in the grocery stores masked, and about half of the staff. I suspect it will be much like Japan, where people who just had a cold or fear one take to wearing them in public…and nobody thinks anything of it. When I see people driving their car alone wearing a mask, I suspect that for some people it has become part of they way they dress in public, and hence comfortable. They would feel naked without one, so to speak.

  30. DrDaveT says:

    @Paul L.:

    So someone with a mental illness wants to harm me physically instead of mentally because I don’t take their mental illness seriously enough.

    No, someone with a recently-acquired permanent disability fantasizes about an argument that even you might eventually understand.

  31. MarkedMan says:

    I’m always fascinated by those who wear their ignorance like a badge of pride. Especially if it’s a reasonably intelligent person who postures and puffs their chest because they sincerely believe deliberately not understanding something and spewing contempt makes them some kind of macho he-man. Fascinating behavior. Pathetic, and I don’t really want to think about the self loathing inadequacy that engenders it, but fascinating nonetheless.

  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @DrDaveT: I went to the sleep clinic today, so I wore a mask. I had no glasses-fogging/seal-is-bad-because-of-my-beard issues to the best of my ability to tell. I bought masks that have thin metal strip that removes as much of the gap as I’ve ever been able to manage with silicone nose bridge devices.

    It is possible to improvise the technology on masks that don’t have a metal strip. Consult the internet for information.

  33. Kathy says:


    They also tend to ignore nuance, and to be utterly incapable of updating when new information arises or the situation changes.

    For instance, no drug works for all people, and this includes biologicals like vaccines and antibodies. That’s why you get an effectiveness percentage for vaccines, for example.

    Then, too, the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were 95% effective against the original strain of trump virus. They were not as effective against latter, more different variants. They did well against Alpha, but not Gamma or, in particular, Delta.

    Delta pretty much added 9 to 12 months to the pandemic phase. It was more transmissible and more virulent. Combine this with the lowish vaccine intake, and even lower booster intake, and the math works out itself.

    At that, the early shots did make for a milder, less deadly course of Delta even without a booster for most people (see above). Milder, though, with the trump disease is still very bad. And less deadly doesn’t mean no one who got vaccinated recovered in the end; they just had a better chance to recover.

    Lastly the first Omicron variants were even more transmissible, but less virulent. they seemed to prefer the upper airway rather than the lungs. They can still kill people with risk factors (and being unvaccinated is a risk factor), but fewer of them.

    All this gets lost for the proudly ignorant. They stumble blindly and blissfully along until they lie gasping for breath in an ICU somewhere.

  34. MarkedMan says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: My company makes equipment used to test masks and is used by a wide variety of manufacturers so I’m absolutely not picking favorites or rating masks. But just as an example of those whose material tested exceptionally well, which passed formal seal tests for a variety of people and faces, and whose resistance is low (breathability is high), the 3M Aura is a good example.

  35. Tony W says:

    @Kathy: Survivorship bias is a huge problem in the anti-vax community. The Texas Sharpshooter is right behind it.

    The Republican commitment to destroying public education has been their most successful investment in my lifetime.

  36. mattbernius says:

    @Paul L.:
    I love your crank rewrite of “We didn’t start the fire”!

  37. Matt says:

    Hey at least Paul L is openly admitting that the vaccine is effective. Baby steps baby steps…

  38. Andy says:


    Thanks, I wasn’t aware of those, I will check them out!

  39. Matt Bernius says:


    Hey at least Paul L is openly admitting that the vaccine is effective.

    Is he though? I guess his one statement implied that.

  40. Paul L. says:

    @Matt Bernius:
    Biden took credit for something that occurred before he took any action.
    Of course all Politicians do that. See 9/11 security theater and no more plane hijackings.

  41. Paul L. says:

    How did they determine the variant? I had Covid twice (before and after vaccine) and have no idea what the variant was. The public health establishment just guess the variant by the date.

  42. Paul L. says:

    Strange everyone in the Mask Cult agrees that the US constitution was suspended by Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905) that the ruled unvaccinated must pay a minor fine.