The crowd claps after a performance during “An Afternoon for Ukraine,” a benefit concert held at Aura in Portland on March 20. Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For Tim Silva of Portland, the decision is easy.

“I don’t wear a mask,” said Silva, adding that others in his circle also don’t cover their noses and mouths. “We see some people wearing masks. The masks are not important.”

Tim Silva of Portland: “I don’t wear a mask.”

It’s a little more complicated for Jake Tabachnick of Portland.

“I’m comfortable not wearing one at this point,” he said. But “I’ll typically do whatever that business is doing when I walk in. If I go in where the workers are wearing them, I’ll wear one. If I walk into a place and they’re not wearing masks, I’ll pull my mask down. I go with whatever the workers are doing.”

With mask recommendations and mandates falling away as infection rates and hospitalizations have declined, more people are going maskless, baring their noses and mouths in offices, grocery stores, restaurants, gyms and big box stores.

As of Thursday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is no longer recommending mask-wearing in 15 of Maine’s 16 counties. Masks are recommended for people at high-risk in Hancock County because of a moderate level of COVID risk, according to the agency.  And as of Saturday, masking is optional in dorms and most other indoor spaces on all University of Maine System campuses. Masks are now required in classrooms only.

Jake Tabachnick of Portland: “I’m comfortable not wearing one at this point. I’ll typically do whatever that business is doing when I walk in.”

The shifting guidance has changed the rules of mask etiquette, leaving many people unsure when, if ever, to mask up.

Mainers have been through this before. When mask recommendations were lifted in May 2021, some burned their masks in hopes the pandemic was ending. Instead, it turned out to be a temporary lull and masks would return months later when the virus surged back.

On St. Patrick’s Day, few of those celebrating in Portland’s crowded restaurants and pubs wore masks. And at a benefit concert last weekend at Aura in Portland, a majority of the more than 200  people who filled the house were not masked.

But there are still many people wearing them in grocery stores and some who say the virus is still around and they’re playing it safe.

“I wear them in public,” Lisa Flanagan of Portland said as she headed into a store wearing a mask. “Who knows who’s sick?”

Nick Knight of Portland said his fiancee has come down with COVID-19 twice. “I haven’t gotten it,” Knight said. So, even though a lot of people stopped wearing them, “I still wear my masks regardless.”

Lisa Flanagan of Portland: “I wear them in public. Who knows who’s sick?”

Tim Strid of Saco isn’t giving up his masks, either. It’s too soon, he said. Strid said he also continues to avoid crowded stores. He and his wife shop in the morning or late in day. He has no immediate plans to unmask.

“We’ll take these off when the numbers (of COVID-19 cases) get to zero,” Strid said.

Pastor Christine Dyke of Gorham’s First Parish Congregational Church said she is comfortable not masking in public and is “picking and choosing” when to wear or not to wear a mask. For instance, she said she’s more comfortable not wearing a mask in a large store with lots of space and ventilation. It helps that she’s got some immunity. “I’ve been vaccinated, boosted and had COVID.”

Leaders of the church have also wrestled with whether to continue to require mask wearing, knowing that people have different comfort levels.

After the church’s executive council debated the issue, leaders concluded that mask wearing would be optional as of last Sunday, said Dyke.

But there also will be a section of pews with limited seating and masking for those who want to social-distance. Dyke said that will help parents of young children who aren’t yet vaccinated and who are “twitchy” about coming to church when others aren’t masked.

Nick Knight of Portland: “I still wear my masks regardless.”

Peer pressure plays a role when making a decision to mask up when going into a public place, said Dr. Jeffrey Barkin, a Portland psychiatrist.

An individual can feel out of place wearing a mask where most people are unmasked, and someone not wearing a mask can feel like a pariah in a store where most faces are covered.

“Peer pressure is a massive part of this, including the whole political component,” Barkin said. “I also think being with each other unmasked is really nice. What beats a smile?”

Influencing what others do around us is natural, he said. “Our habits, behavior and personalities are shaped by the five people we spend most of our time with.”

Studies show that a person’s social networks contribute “to how we act, including smoking, obesity and substance use,” Barkin added. “There is no reason to suspect this will be any different with attitudes toward mask wearing where we act in a manner similar to those around us.”

But he and other doctors say they will continue wearing masks, and they urge people to keep their masks handy.

When asked if people should wear masks despite the relaxed mask recommendations, Barkin, who is president of the Maine Medical Association, said he still encourages people to wear masks in crowded stores and restaurants. Masks are especially important, he said, if one is in a region that has a high number of COVID-19 cases.

Tim Strid of Saco: “We’ll take these off when the numbers (of COVID-19 cases) get to zero.”

Even in an area that’s rated as “green,” or  at low risk of transmission, Barkin wears his mask to places like Hannaford or CVS or anywhere there’s a crowd of people.

“I also test myself when I’m going to be around folks who are vulnerable, the occasional dinner party with friends that are older,” Barkin said. About the only time he takes off his mask is when he’s in places where others whom he knows also take care to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19.

“As a soon-to-be 60 year old, I play it cautiously,” he said. “Case counts are way down. … That said, we must not be complacent.” As we’ve seen, Barkin said, the COVID-19 picture can rapidly change.

Dr. Blake Whitaker, an epidemiologist and University of Southern Maine professor, agrees.

“I recommend masking when in a crowded environment, when indoors and transmission might be likely,” and whenever case counts rise, he said.

Whitaker said as a 69-year-old, he’s careful not to catch COVID-19, even though case numbers are down.

“I’ve been vaccinated and boosted,” he said. “When I go out in public, to Shaw’s, Hannaford or Walmart, I mask up. I want to be as safe as I can be. I’ve got grandchildren.”

He no longer wears masks around his family, but it’s important to be careful in public to protect family members who are vulnerable, said Whitaker, who teaches medical classes at the Lewiston-Auburn College of USM. “One of my grandchildren is vaccinated. One is too young to be vaccinated. I trust the precautions when I’m in public to keep them safe.”

A surge of virus cases in Europe and China is a reminder of the risk, he said. U.S. experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Biden, have cautioned that virus surges overseas are often followed three weeks later with increases in the United States. And the new subvariant, omicron BA.2, is becoming the dominant strain here, too. But he and others have also said the U.S. population is somewhat protected by vaccinations and natural immunity from the surge of infections over the winter.

“We have to expect that more types of COVID will emerge,” Whitaker said. “We can’t predict which strains are going to be the most difficult. I’m not saying that omicron will mutate back to something more deadly. That’s possible, but unlikely.”

He said the COVID pandemic could make Americans more comfortable with masks as a way to control virus outbreaks, including influenza. Flu rates in Maine have dropped precipitously with mask wearing, said Whitaker.

“The masks, social distancing and quarantining work,” Whitaker said. “Now wearing a mask is not so unusual. Wearing a mask in the fall won’t have the stigma now. If it’s something’s (that’s) going to keep me from getting ill or bringing home to my family, I have to think carefully about it.”

During his classes, mask wearing will continue to be required through the rest of the spring semester. And depending on the case counts, mask wearing could continue.

“I’ll keep watching the numbers.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: