Off with the Masks, Kinda

We are nearing the two month mark for our travels in Italy. At the outset, green pass (the online EU COVID19 vaccine passport) was required to go to museums, churches, restaurants, etc and was more often than not checked. Masks were required indoors. While I’m skeptical of their effectiveness in restaurants where people wear them to their tables and then immediately remove them for the duration of the meal, only to don them to leave (ok, beyond skeptical), I am not that if worn on trains or other enclosed places with poor air filtration and circulation that they may help reduce the spread of disease transmission (and not just COVID).

Over these two months, based on data I look at from the New York Times, which comes from what the countries report, Italy, France and Portugal have maintained an almost flat number of cases with little to no increase in severe disease and hospitalizations. All three are at around or above 90% vaccine rates. So, this past week, in Italy, mask mandates expired in stores and restaurants (they are still required on public transportation).

Immediately, we noticed that…. Not much changed. People are happy that they are no longer mandated, but most people still wear them indoors or in a crowd even though they aren’t required. Maybe it’s habit. Maybe it’s caution. Whatever the root cause, no one took to the streets to celebrate their newfound freedom from oppression and burned their masks. I guess hedging their bets for a future surge or a return to requirements? Who knows.

Which is why it’s kind of a culture shock when we return to the US, as we did last fall. We’ve been in Europe most of the time since that hopeful month of July 2020 when vaccination rates were climbing steadily in the US and were starting to accelerate in Europe and before Omicron reared it’s ugly face. It’s just so different over here (at least in Portugal, France and Italy, where we’ve been). There are no overt or heated arguments from either side. No mocking people wearing a mask. No shaming those who aren’t. When numbers spike and health officials suggest or mandate certain behaviors compliance is extremely high. No one loves to wear a mask, particularly for long stretches like on long transcontinental flights or extended hospital stays, like I had last week. I guess we will never really know how truly effective masks are or aren’t but as this pandemic does feel like it’s rounding the turn for endemic home plate (God willing) I hope that the next time we are faced with a public health crisis it will be less contentious than this one was. I guess I’m probably naive and for that reason I sure hope that we don’t face another in a very very very long time and don’t have a chance to find out in our lifetimes.

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