Are disappearing masks a sign of our Covid fatigue?

Now that avoiding Covid-19 has become a matter of personal responsibility, the placement – ​​or not – of the humble mask reveals a sign of the times. Experts say it’s vital we get back into the habit. Kelly Dennett reports.

By the end of summer more and more diners were coming into Apero without their masks.

The small Karangahape Rd bistro’s co-owner Ismo ‘Mo’ Koski had been feeling stifled in the heat by his own.

“And I think one day I just sort of started wearing it around my chin, and I’d put it on when I approached tables, and then there was one shift where it didn’t go on, and no-one said anything. I was sort of prepared to deal with the pushback and there hasn’t been any.

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“It’s not a protest, it’s not a defined stand, it’s more just… I don’t know if it relaxed people, but people can come here and feel normal for a couple of hours instead of going out into the big bad Covid world of mask wearing.

“Dining out is so facial – it’s expressions and engagement. I really found the mask stifled a lot of that. In the wider scheme of things, people might say I’m selfish, but you know, self-regulation is the best thing, I think.”

The collective mask up was a symbol of our unity as a team. Now, many of us are abandoning them.


The collective mask up was a symbol of our unity as a team. Now, many of us are abandoning them.

This week as the prime minister apologised for taking a large group photo without a mask, the health ministry changed its advice, u-turning on a previous decision to abandon mandates in schools. Now, it’s informing them they should enforce a mask wearing policy for students year 4 and above. The move has been praised by experts, as overseas – particularly in Australia – officials are pleading with people to reinstate their mask use.

Mandatory masking for guests in restaurants was dropped when the country moved to orange, but remains a rule in supermarkets, shops and public transport. Nonetheless, Retail NZ believes about two-thirds of its customers are sans mask – its chief executive says usage is so lax the mandate may as well be scrapped.

But epidemiologist Michael Baker says it’s not too late for the ‘Covid fatigued’ to readapt their behaviours now, and would like to see a national mask strategy, highlighting the importance of masking in places that are crowded, contained or at risk of close contact.

Comparing going without a mask to drink-driving, Baker says, “The number of tools available is extremely limited and masks are really the main tool we have now. We’re getting close to, I think, most people who can, or are willing to, have had their boosters, so if you want to stop transmission, really turn the tap down on that, masks are it. Whether people feel fatigued or not, we have to use all the tools we have available.

“It’s about having a single focus… understanding that masks do work, and that actually it’s not that hard to find a mask you’re comfortable with. If we can tilt as many institutions as possible as having masks as the norm, that will help us become a mask-using society, at least to get through the worst of the pandemic.”

One Auckland woman says she wonders if Aucklanders are 'being played for fools', while another says she's desperate to avoid another lockdown.

Natalie Crockett/Stuff

One Auckland woman says she wonders if Aucklanders are ‘being played for fools’, while another says she’s desperate to avoid another lockdown.

Now that scanning has disappeared, and vaccination status is invisible, a mask is that final symbol of who is back to pre-pandemic life, or not.

While in the early days of the pandemic anti-maskers cited freedom, discomfort, or concerns about efficacy, now many say they have had Covid and are no longer fearful, or they’re just ready to move on.

Others say mixed messaging has contributed to apathy. But even so, while not quite the last taboo, admitting to relaxed mask wearing is daunting. One professional woman didn’t want to be named as she admitted she only wore masks in supermarkets, and in malls only about half the time. She didn’t think she was alone in that.

“The whole ordering at a cafe with a mask on but sitting down as a guest without one just didn’t make sense. Recently I travelled to another North Island town and nobody wore masks – even inside retail stores which made me feel like Aucklanders, especially, are just being played for fools.

“I do appreciate that masks are designed to protect the vulnerable and I do feel somewhat guilty for that. But I think Kiwis are just tired of the mandates and perceived control by our government thus becoming much more relaxed / lackadaisical about mask use. I’ m one of them.”

Although a spokesperson explained PM Ardern had de-masked for a photo, psychologist and the author of Finding Calm, Dr Sarb Johal, later tweeted, “It’s curious that we want to give photos a special privilege, right? It’s like all bets are off if a photo is being taken.” He surmised there was a “bending of reality going on here, as if we can, for a few seconds, pretend there is no pandemic.”

In a blog, Johal wrote that cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias was fuelling mask apathy; that mask wearing had become performative, or a sign of respect: a social signal rather than a belief that they work.

“The discourse has moved more to one of “freedom and personal responsibility” rather than one of “protection and community concern”,” he wrote. “This is really unfortunate and is more about politics than anything else. With new variants able to escape vaccine-mediated immunity more than before, our multilayer cloak of protection has more holes in it than previously thought.”

Gary Farrow: 'I was starting to branch out into the community again. Then my wife caught Covid.'

Wendy van den Berg Farrow/Supplied

Gary Farrow: ‘I was starting to branch out into the community again. Then my wife caught Covid.’

In Hamilton, Gary Farrow’s stepdaughter chides bus passengers without masks.

“When we’re passing one she’s actually pointing to the bus, tut tutting everyone. She’s literally more mindful of mask wearing being important than some adults are. And she’s six.”

The Hamilton broadcaster’s stepdaughter’s young life has almost been half lived through the Covid-19 pandemic. Farrow and wife Wendy work hard to balance vigilance without scare tactics, but the family has become more stringent following Wendy’s bout with Covid-19 that “knocked her for 12”.

While “no-one really knows for sure”, Farrow thinks Wendy contracted it from momentary contact with a maskless person while picking their daughter up from school – one of the many places the family continue to wear masks. Farrow pretty much wears one all day , particularly for work, but, remarking on the PM’s mask slip, he’s understanding.

“I think a lot of us tend to slip off our masks in some situations, when we want to convey happiness at seeing someone, or we want to evoke some sort of emotion, or intonation in what we’re saying. And I do that . Of course, when I’m inside and I need to eat or drink I take the mask off then as well, which seems kind of counterproductive, doesn’t it?”

That said, he recalls the incredulity of watching as a customer kicked up a stink after being asked to wear a mask at a retail store recently.

“He kept on facing off with every level of management while he was there, and the police had to be called,” says Farrow.

Krishna Botica of Cafe Hanoi: 'Are we a nation so small we know everyone needs to be protected?'

David White/Stuff

Krishna Botica of Cafe Hanoi: ‘Are we a nation so small we know everyone needs to be protected?’

But the side-eye of someone ogling to see if you have a mask on works in reverse too. A recent trip to Sydney and Melbourne was an uncomfortable one for Krishna Botica, who realised she was the outlier for wearing a mask.

“We absolutely stood out,” she says. “That’s when my theory about geography went out the window.”

Her theory goes that urban centres with proximity to high case numbers, or MIQ facilities, and a more diverse population, will have more mask wearers. She sees this play out in her two busy Britomart restaurants, Cafe Hanoi and Ghost Street, where guests arrive wearing masks despite mandates being dropped for guests in eateries.

“It begs the question, why [are Kiwis more compliant than Australians]Are we a nation that’s so small we know everyone that needs to be protected? Or, are we a nation who just feels a little bit more fragile? Australians seem to feel invulnerable to economic shocks.”

She thinks guests have been particularly proactive after the Government last week pleaded with people to mask up, making masks freely available.

This week she’s seen guests “correcting themselves as they see me wearing a mask, and they’re apologising. Whereas three weeks before that, they were going, ‘are we still wearing masks? What’s going on? Out of sight, out of mind . With numbers dropping, people go, ‘OK let’s move on a little bit.’”

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