Almost every one of my jacket pockets contains a face mask. As I am writing this column, if I look behind me, I count seven stacked boxes with rapid COVID tests. Starting two years ago, a fresh box of Mucinex tablets and a bottle of extra-strength Tylenol became staples in the upstairs medicine cabinet and remain so. Daily, I learn of someone else who has tested positive for COVID. Made-up names like “Paxlovid” now seem as familiar as words like “lozenge” or “steam.”
Many of us returned to work in person more than a year ago. Some of us never had the luxury of working remotely, but we returned with far more caution than prior to the pandemic. When I first returned to work in person and took the subway to work, everyone was required to wear a mask. As masks moved from required to highly suggested, about three-quarters of passengers continued to mask up. Now, it’s less than half.
Even as restrictions have lifted and the number of COVID cases and deaths no longer stream across the television news channels or arrive as nightly alerts in our inboxes, the detritus of the pandemic remains. So too do cases of COVID and resulting deaths. Many of us remain concerned about getting COVID and passing it on to others.
What, then, is the right thing to do now that mandates and restrictions have largely been lifted?
While it might seem it is time for each of us to make our own choices about how to go forth in a world where many have decided COVID no longer presents a risk, for many at-risk people, this is simply not a valid approach. Certainly we have to make our own decisions about whether to mask or not, but to do so ethically requires us to think carefully about the effects our decisions could have on others.
If a store or business or hospital or other outfit posts signs indicating that masks are required, then we should wear a mask. If we are invited to a gathering with people and want to know if everyone will have been vaccinated or tested prior to going, it’s OK to ask. We should not hesitate refusing invitations to such events if we’re not comfortable attending. Our questions shouldn’t be interpreted as judging a host’s decisions. The hosts shouldn’t judge our comfort level. They too should keep in mind the health risks for every one of their invitees.
So too should our places of employment. Eliminating unnecessary group meetings is always a good idea, even more so now. Providing the option of remote meetings may continue to be wise.
Signs on the subway platform recommend but don’t require masking up. Many at-risk people may choose to avoid public transportation now that masking isn’t optional. But given that some have no choice but to use public transportation, we should keep them in mind.
I do not know when things will get back to the normal that existed prior to the pandemic’s arrival in March 2020. It might seem unimaginable to some that they ever will. “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable,” Mary Oliver wrote in her poem “Evidence.” In the meantime, the right thing is to continue to keep some room in our hearts for those around us as we all navigate our way around.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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