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'We’re all rethinking normal': Community members respond to optional mask-wearing


A mask lies in a puddle in front of the Student Stores Building in January.

Evan Jones, a local resident who deals with health issues and is often around others who are immunocompromised, still wears his mask all the time.

Jones said people like him are marginalized by practices that others have considered "normal," like not wearing masks.

“If you view the public as all having the same standards of how they interact and how their bodies work, we typically see people kind of erase people, say, with certain health conditions, disabilities,” he said.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Orange County at a high COVID-19 Community Level, based on weekly metrics regarding case rates, new COVID-19-related admissions to hospitals and the percentage of staffed inpatient beds with confirmed infection. 

Orange County lifted its mask mandate nearly a year ago.

At this level, the CDC recommends that community members wear masks indoors in public as well as on public transportation and that high-risk individuals consider taking additional precautions.

“Sometimes I wonder if people will look at me like, ‘Oh, isn’t that over?’” Jones said. “And it’s not like my parents are aging in reverse, or the people in my life who are immunocompromised are suddenly magically not at risk.”

Karen Daniels, a resident of Carrboro and physics professor at N.C. State University, still wears her mask when in public spaces and has noticed that many of those around her are continuing to do the same.

“I think that, when compared to other places, our local environment is better about this,” she said. “There’s still a lot of people wearing them.”

There is a sizable number of community members who wear masks situationally, Daniels said. This is in part due to the advantage of outdoor accommodations, which allow people to unmask to dine or socialize.

As of Jan. 5, 94.7 percent of Orange County residents over five years of age have completed their primary series of vaccinations and 31.6 percent have gotten their updated booster dose.

Mask wearing is a multiplicative effect, and the more people wearing masks reduces the possibility of transmission for everyone, Daniels said.

Carrboro resident Mira Carlinnia recently decided to switch to wearing masks situationally. This includes if she feels sick, is in a crowded place or notices that many of the people around her are wearing masks.

“Once I got my fourth booster shot, I had a lot of conversations with the people in my bubble, and we decided — my roommate and I — that we were comfortable with playing it by ear in terms of the spaces we were in,” Carlinnia said.

Daniels said masks reduce transmission of other respiratory illnesses outside of COVID-19, making it particularly crucial for community members to consider putting masks back on.

In the last week of 2022, there was an increase in positive COVID-19, human metapneumovirus (HMPV) and influenza cases in North Carolina, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“It's been a revelation to see how masking indoors in public places, including our classrooms, has dramatically reduced my respiratory illnesses overall,” Mark Peifer, a biology professor at UNC, said in a Tweet to The Daily Tar Heel. “I see no negatives, especially in winter.”

Many cultures worldwide already wear masks in public regularly, Jones said. He formerly lived in Japan, where he said it was a common occurrence to wear a mask on the subway or train if you felt ill.

Daniels believes that masks are here to stay and that the pandemic has given people many better health practices.

Jones said that he hopes that, despite all of the tragic aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the experience has encouraged people to rethink public health, spaciality and their interactions with others when they are not feeling well.

“I think we’re all rethinking normal, and I think that’s a good thing,” Jones said. “Hopefully it will be a beneficial thing.”

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@DTHCityState | 

Eliza Benbow

Eliza Benbow is the 2023-24 lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer university editor. Eliza is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and creative writing, with a minor in Hispanic studies.