Something So Right

Paul Simon wrote songs that kind of did sum up the American experience, even if no one really noticed. They were beyond pop. They cut deeper. In 1973 in was Something So Right:

When something goes wrong
I’m the first to admit it
I’m the first to admit it
But the last one to know
When something goes right
Oh, it’s likely to lose me
It’s apt to confuse me
It’s such an unusual sight
Oh, I can’t get used to something so right
Something so right…

This is a love song, but it’s more than that. This is a song about the existential despair an honest man feels about life – understanding the world was not made to please him, or even for him in any way, and admitting that – a kind of Camus thing – and how confusing it is when, suddenly, something actually goes just right. It really is likely to lose him. He loves what happened. He has no idea what to do next

That just happened to all of us. The pandemic is ending. Many of us are now free, perhaps. America loves this, and has no idea what to do next. The New York Times reports this:

Minnesota’s statewide mask mandate is over. But in Minneapolis, the state’s largest city, face coverings are still required.

In Michigan, Kentucky and Oregon, governors cheerily told vaccinated people that they could go out maskless. But mask mandates remained in force for New Yorkers, New Jerseyans and Californians.

So unexpected was new federal guidance on masks that in Kansas City, Mo., Mayor Quinton Lucas went from saying he would not change his mask order, to saying he would think about it, to announcing that he was getting rid of it altogether, all in the span of about seven hours.

Across the country, governors, store owners and people running errands were scrambling on Friday to make sense of the abrupt change in federal guidelines, which said fully vaccinated people could now safely go most places, indoors or outdoors, without a mask.

You’re free! Well, some of you are. Or maybe everyone is free now, or should be, or maybe no one is free yet:

At least 20 states that still had mask mandates in place this week said by Friday evening that they would exempt fully vaccinated people or repeal the orders entirely, while at least five others with mask requirements had not announced any changes. The rapidly changing rules brought an end to more than a year of mandatory masking in much of the country, even as some said they were not yet ready to take off their face coverings.

“I’m going to wear a mask for a long time to come,” said Fanny Lopez, 28, who was grocery shopping in San Antonio on Friday morning while wearing a black cloth mask. “I trust the mask more than the vaccine. The government messages are confusing, telling us to wear a mask one day and the next day no.”

But there’s a bigger problem here:

The sudden shift in public health advice resonated at every level of government, from City Hall in Hartsville, S.C., where a local mask mandate was allowed to expire, to Nevada’s Gaming Control Board, which said it was not practical “to attempt to enforce a mask mandate tethered to an individual’s vaccination status,” to the U.S. Capitol, where the attending physician said House members would still have to cover their faces on the floor of the chamber.

Nevada’s Gaming Control Board just could not see a way to move forward, maskless, without a way to verify each individual’s vaccination status. The government won’t issue “vaccine passports” – too socialist or something – and Florida’s governor has said that any business that asks its potential customers or clients if they have been vaccinated will never be allowed to do business in Florida ever again. No one will discriminate against patriots who, in the name of personal freedom, have refused to be vaccinated, like sheep. Governor DeSantis will stand for freedom! Give me liberty or give me death!

So, death it is, but nothing is that simple:

The shift was perhaps most challenging for governors and big-city mayors, many of whom have expended significant political capital on mask orders in the face of protests and lawsuits, and who were not given a heads-up about the change in federal policy before it was announced on Thursday.

Mayor Lucas said he could not keep Kansas City’s order in place since there was no easy way to differentiate people who are fully vaccinated – now 36 percent of Americans – from the 64 percent who are not.

“While I understand the CDC’s theory that they could just create a rule that says vaccinated folks go anywhere without a mask, and everybody else who’s unvaccinated will follow it, I don’t know if that’s the type of rule that was written in coordination with anyone who has been a governor or a mayor over the last 14 months,” said Mr. Lucas, a Democrat.

The CDC does theory. Mayors do real life. Businesses guess:

The new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which came amid a steep drop in new cases and an expansion of vaccine eligibility to everyone 12 and older, signaled a shift toward pre-pandemic social norms, when no one thought twice about buying groceries or sitting down in their cubicle with a bare mouth and nose. Walmart announced on Friday that fully vaccinated employees and customers would no longer need to wear masks, and Costco issued a similar announcement.

So, who are the fully vaccinated employees and customers, and who are the true patriots who love freedom? Each group self-reports. No one knows. Some may be lying. It may be time to slow down a bit:

Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said he would keep his state’s mask mandate in place, writing on Twitter that “we’re making incredible progress, but we’re not there yet.” And Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a Republican, indicated he would revisit his state’s rules next week, but he did not announce any immediate changes.

That was fine with Kay McGowan, who owns a rug and furniture shop in Somerville, Mass. She said that she would not be taking off her mask, nor would she allow customers to do so.

“It feels too early to me,” Ms. McGowan said.

She may be right:

Governors in New Mexico, Maine, Maryland and Colorado were among those who adjusted their rules Friday in light of the CDC guidance. In Rhode Island, where officials learned about the new federal guidance in the middle of a news conference on Thursday, state leaders said on Friday that they would relax their mask rules.

But the new CDC suggestions were not universally popular. Some public health experts questioned the wisdom of the relaxed guidelines, while local officials confronted the reality that, if they created separate rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, there was no real way of knowing who was who.

“The people that have been pushing the limits on not wearing a mask, as it is, are also the ones that tend to not be vaccinated,” said Mayor Kim Norton of Rochester, Minn. “To say vaccinated people can take their masks off will not give us any assurance that the person next to us has been vaccinated.”

And that leaves this:

Mayor Tishaura Jones of St. Louis, who announced Friday that mask rules would be loosened in her city, said she hoped business owners would ask about the vaccination status of maskless customers.

“But we don’t want this to turn into sort of like a show-me-your-papers moment,” said Ms. Jones, who said that she personally planned to continue wearing a mask. “We’ll just have to trust what people tell us.”

Good luck with that. This was the only guidance:

For more than a year, masking had been urged by public health experts, a key to stopping the airborne spread of the coronavirus. Some places allowed their mask requirements to expire months ago, but face coverings remained mandatory this week in more than 20 states, as well as many cities and counties. Just a few weeks ago, the CDC said fully vaccinated Americans could usually forgo masks outdoors, but should continue wearing them in public spaces indoors.

The agency changed course on Thursday, saying people who were at least two weeks past their final dose of a vaccine could safely go most places, both indoors and outdoors, without a mask. The CDC said everyone should still wear a mask in certain settings, including health care facilities, on public transportation and on flights.

That was it. That was all. Those who “followed the science” are now trying to figure out why the science has changed so drastically in the last few weeks, but Kevin Drum says nothing much changed:

Nothing significant has changed about “the science” in the past two months – although we do have more data about how well the COVID vaccines work against all the variants floating around out there. (Pretty well, it seems.) Nobody has said otherwise.

What’s changed is the circumstances. No one ever suggested that we’d wear masks forever, which means there was always going to be a day when the CDC would announce that it was okay for vaccinated folks to stop wearing them. That day would come when (a) the case count was dropping, (b) the vaccination rate had gotten sufficiently high, (c) real-world experience with the vaccines was convincingly positive, and (d) other indicators suggested that it was safe to drop the mask recommendation.

This is something of a judgment call, and there’s nothing special about the day before or the day after. Nothing “suddenly” changed. Is this really so hard to understand?

In short, yes. Something went right. That’s the problems now. The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake lays that out:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it no longer recommends that vaccinated people wear masks in most situations, including indoors. Almost immediately, people began shedding the masks that have become ubiquitous in our lives over the past year-plus. The implementation of this carries some obvious challenges, though…

Won’t this just free up unvaccinated people to also not wear masks? Even if verifying vaccination status weren’t such a thorny issue (vaccine passports), it’s completely impractical to do so in everyday public interactions.

That makes those unvaccinated people a real danger:

The most important thing for the vaccinated to know is that, according to the CDC, they don’t have to worry.

But as with getting vaccinated, it’s not just about you; it’s also about stopping the spread of the virus in the broader society. Freeing up the unverifiable unvaccinated to blend in with their vaccinated neighbors by taking off their masks could allow them to more easily spread the disease among themselves. That could, in turn, make it more difficult to stamp out the virus. People have been talking about this in terms of whether the unvaccinated will simply “lie” about their status, but they won’t really even have to do that; they can just take off their masks.

Expect that:

Polling before the CDC’s decision was announced suggests it’s quite likely that a huge number of them will. And not only that, but unvaccinated people are also more likely to engage in riskier activities, in large part because they don’t take the virus as seriously as those who have sought inoculation.

An Economist/YouGov poll released last week showed that 63 percent of Americans who said they didn’t plan to get vaccinated said they felt at least “somewhat” safe socializing indoors with other unvaccinated people without a mask. That compared with just 36 percent of people who had received at least one dose. In others words, the people who were much more protected were still more reluctant. (It seems likely the latter number will rise in the coming weeks, based on the new CDC guidance).

It also suggests nearly two-thirds of those who won’t get vaccinated are rather prepared to venture out into society and interact with other people who might or might not be vaccinated.

It seems that the incentives are running the wrong way:

The mask mandates provided a measure of social and even legal pressure for them to mask up while engaging in those activities. But with many or most of those mandates now being repealed and it being impossible to know who’s vaccinated, they’re now seemingly freed up to do something they already believed was safe…

It’s been clear for a long time that there is much overlap between vaccine skepticism and mask skepticism. As more and more Americans get vaccinated and follow the guidance by de-masking, social pressure could work in the opposite direction.

And that just makes things worse:

The CDC says it’s not a problem for vaccinated people, because they’re protected. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem for society more broadly if it allows the virus to spread more freely in the unvaccinated population.

The solution seems, as it has been, to make that group of unvaccinated people as small as possible. Ideally, many of those people will see the relaxing of mask mandates as an incentive to get vaccinated to free themselves up. Maybe this will help them see the finish line.

But it also boils down to a private decision that their neighbors will likely never know about – to get something many of them already doubt is safe and/or terribly necessary.

Leana Wen, the visiting professor at George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health who once served as Baltimore’s health commissioner, and who pops up on CNN and MSNBC quite a bit, makes all of this less theoretical:

Let’s say you go the grocery store. It’s crowded and few people there are masked. Perhaps everyone is vaccinated, but perhaps not. What if you’re vaccinated but not fully protected because you’re immunocompromised? You can no longer count on CDC rules to help you keep safe.

What if you don’t have child care, so you had to bring your kids along? They didn’t choose to remain unvaccinated – the shots aren’t available for them. Surely, it’s not fair to put them at risk.

Here’s another example. As employers are formulating return-to-work policies, many employees are expressing that they are nervous about coming back in person. What reassures them is if the workplace continues to abide by mitigation measures such as masking and distancing, or, in its place, the employer requires vaccination. Imagine, if you will, now being scheduled to come into an office where vaccination isn’t checked and masking is, therefore, optional.

But wait, there’s more:

What about the broad danger of enabling and encouraging people who never wanted to wear masks and refuse to be vaccinated? They could spread the virus among themselves, freed from inhibition.

By resorting to the honor code, the CDC is removing a critical incentive to vaccination. Many who were on the fence might have been motivated to get the shot because they could go back to activities they were missing, without a mask. Now, if no one is checking, and they can do everything anyway, why bother?

And the pandemic then goes on forever:

The CDC is still saying that masks are needed in certain settings including airplanes, hospitals and nursing homes. Individual businesses are still able to make their own requirements. However, businesses often depend on the CDC to back up their policies. Many were already under pressure to drop mask mandates. Now, who will stop a maskless person from walking into an establishment, self-identifying as being vaccinated, acting as they choose and citing the CDC as the reason that they can potentially endanger others?

Yes, Doctor Wen is not happy:

The CDC has gone from one extreme to the other, from over-caution to throwing caution to the wind. Its new guidance could have been exactly what we needed to encourage vaccination, but it skipped a key step. It should be revised to say that fully vaccinated people should have no restrictions on their public activities if vaccination status can be verified. That means stores, theaters and restaurants can be at full capacity, without masks, if they check vaccination status.

But there’s no reliable way to do that now, and there are those patriotic freedom folks saying that checking vaccination status would be the end of America as we know it. The government has no right to ask that question. No business has the right to ask that question. No one has the right to ask that question. And anyway, they’ll lie if they’re asked that question. No one can prove they’re lying. “We’ll just have to trust what people tell us.”

That’s it? Paul Simon is still singing:

When something goes right
Oh, it’s likely to lose me
It’s apt to confuse me…

There’s a reason for that. Something’s not right here.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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