For millions of Americans, the Covid-19 emergency, that disorienting period of lockdowns, mandates, free-floating anxiety and exhaustion, ended sometime in the last few years caused by vaccines and antiviral drugs.
The expiration of the federal public health emergency on Thursday was a barely noticed formality.
But signs of a changed country remain everywhere: in the many thousands of families quietly grieving the loss, in the struggles of those suffering lingering Covid, and in the continued reliance of many Americans on one of the pandemic’s most hotly debated tools: the humble mask.
“This is my new normal,” said Nicole Uhing, 38, who was wearing a mask and carrying books at a branch of the Des Moines Public Library. Ms Uhing, who said wearing a mask made her more comfortable at her workplace, was unfazed by the government’s decision. “It doesn’t look like Covid is going away. It continues to change and evolve.”
In interviews across the country on Thursday, most people greeted the news of the government’s decision with neither relief nor alarm, but a sense of resignation. Many described being newly attuned to the lurking public health risks and also to ways they could protect themselves against those risks, often with government help. Now they were largely alone.
“It’s not over, I know people who have the virus now,” said Maria Paula, 52, a domestic worker who lives in Brooklyn. “I’m tired of wearing a mask,” she said. “But the virus is here, it’s still here.”
Ms. Paula is among those who, like the majority of respondents to a survey conducted in mid-March by Monmouth University, believe the pandemic is not over and may never be. In the same survey, about half of respondents reported wearing a mask when in public at least some of the time, and about 20 percent said they wore a mask most or all of the time.
In interviews, those who said they still wore masks all the time gave a wide variety of reasons. Some had respiratory problems or family members with compromised immune systems. Others noted that the pandemic is hardly over, even if the federal emergency has ended.
There are many diseases beyond Covid-19, many said, describing the mask as a simple disease-fighting tool that perhaps should have been widely adopted long ago.
“In a lot of ways, it’s made us more aware of any kind of disease that’s being transmitted,” said Melissa Link, 52, a county commissioner in Athens, Ga., who recently wore a mask to a meeting when she had a head cold. “Nobody can afford to take days off from work.”
For Ms. Link and others in conservative-led states, the emergency was long over, at least as far as government rules were concerned. Many Republican governors, including Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, banned localities from requiring masks years ago, leaving the issue of pandemic precautions almost entirely up to individuals or businesses.
But even in more liberal places, where masks were the norm throughout the pandemic and are hardly a rarity now, restrictions have long since been lifted.
“I was going to wear a mask whether they were mandated or not,” said Karen Stallard, 65, who was carrying groceries from a trip to Trader Joe’s in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. She said she had respiratory problems and called the masks a “medical necessity.” But she added that the choice is personal and should be. As for the federal health emergency, she said, “It’s time for it to end.”
Some said their continued mask-wearing was rooted in a sense of social responsibility, out of concern for the elderly stranger who might pass by in the supermarket or sit next to them on the bus. “We never think about our old people,” said Ariel Hsu, a 61-year-old retiree from Los Angeles. “They are the ones who have suffered the most from this.”
Others had more specific reasons. Lindsey Colassa, 46, an herbalist living in Santa Barbara, California, said she wore her mask for her 5-year-old daughter, hoping to protect her from any viruses that were spreading around. Anastasia McTeague, 28, standing at the front desk of a dry cleaner in Maitland, Florida, said she wore hers for a colleague whose mother died of Covid. “She was quite anxious about it the whole time, so I keep wearing the mask because it makes her feel better,” she said.
As with vaccine mandates and school closings, there has never been universal acceptance of masks. A wide range of medical professionals strongly promote mask wearing and mandates, citing studies that show masks slow transmission. But an ever-growing bloc of vocal citizens and government officials have denounced the mandates as an encroachment on personal liberty.
Many of the remaining federal Covid mandates are being lifted as the public health emergency expires. Among other consequences, people will no longer be entitled to eight free home tests per month through their insurance. But few people interviewed Thursday were aware of the end of the health emergency, and those who had heard about it said it would not have much of an effect on their daily lives.
“I took it with a grain of salt,” said Ann Gaines, 53, of Brooklyn, who still wears a mask when around other people. “I’m curious: why now?” she asked of the message. “Maybe it’s the vaccine rate? It looks like a moving landscape.
This sense of bewilderment was among the more common reactions: Why now, what does this mean, and what had really happened in the last three, strange, terrible, confusing years?
“What was it all about?” said Diane Soto, who was wearing a mask as she entered a Chinese restaurant Thursday afternoon in Altamonte Springs, Florida. “I do not know.”
Reporting contributed by Eric Adelson, Angela Chen, Mark Guarino, Joanna HongAntonio Mejias-Rents, Anne Hinga Klein and Nate Schweber.