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Unpacking the mask: would we cover up again if asked?

Mask wearers rare, puzzled: ‘seemed like a no-brainer’

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When musician Matt Schellenberg goes on tour, he keeps a face mask on in any indoor space.

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When musician Matt Schellenberg goes on tour, he keeps a face mask on in any indoor space.

A keyboardist and member of Manitoba-based pop group Royal Canoe, Schellenberg and his bandmates stay masked-up in venues, only taking them off to play — a “little gamble,” as he refers to it — even though the vast majority have dropped use of the personal protective equipment.

“It just seemed like a no-brainer to me that I can just put this thing on my face that makes my chance of not getting COVID astronomically higher,” Schellenberg told the Free Press on Monday.

MIKE SUDOMA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSMatt Schellenberg of the band Royal Canoe still wears a mask in most public settings and wonders why most people are now going maskless.

“So I kind of don’t understand why people don’t do it.”

Schellenberg has slowly but surely become part of a minority in many public spaces, where those who choose to wear a mask regardless of public health orders have dwindled over time, even amongst those who had held on to the practice post-provincial restrictions.

The musician said he was the only one wearing a mask in a group of around 100 people when visiting the Forks recently, adding it can at times feel alienating.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS As is evident at The Forks on Monday, mask wearing is increasingly rare.

“It feels isolating,” Schellenberg said. “But the challenge is to not allow it to put you in any sort of holier than thou situation… I think that the whole thing just can create tension, and I try my best to not be like, ‘Oh, I’m somebody who cares, and I’m surrounded by people who don’t,’ because, obviously, it’s more nuanced than that.”

Curtis Wiebe, a draftsman who lives in the small community of Kleefeld in southern Manitoba, said it’s “pretty much guaranteed” he’ll be the sole person wearing a mask should he walk into the local general store.

“I’m kind of tired of being that guy who’s always telling people (the COVID-19 pandemic is) not over, whatever, so I don’t really say anything,” he said. “But I just kind of try to do my thing and be consistent with what I think I need to do.

“I wonder, too, sometimes if there’s like a little bit of a collective grief or shock or something that we’re going through, where people just really want things to go back to the way they were.”

Watching Winnipeggers, in particularly, slowly begin to leave their masks at home has been an interesting phenomenon, epidemiologist Cynthia Carr said. It might be a response to people’s heightened understanding of the risks of going unmasked. Immunized people who see the province is defining its response level as “green,” meaning “limited risk,” may feel they’re better-equipped to face the novel coronavirus than they were earlier on in the pandemic, she added.

“Our concept of risk and danger associated with the virus has changed, and a great deal of that is because of the success of vaccines in preventing severe illness,” Carr said.

This could also be behind the slow uptake for third and fourth COVID-19 vaccine doses (around half of eligible Manitobans have received a third shot, while just 11.3 per cent of those who can get a fourth shot have done so), which could have dangerous consequences, Carr said.

Why are many who were originally staying the course even after the province lifted mask mandates forgoing mask-wearing over time?

It could be a number of factors, Brandon University sociology Prof. Christopher Schneider said.

Exhaustion and fear around being one of a few wearing a mask in a crowd, mixed messaging from leadership, and a “profound lack in a unified trust in any one thing” after years of conflicting information online stand out, he said.

“COVID is no longer dominating the headlines as it once was over the past couple of years. It’s still there, no doubt, but there are other things happening, and I think, in part, it’s not on top of everybody’s mind anymore,” he said.

“And I think that provides the illusion that maybe COVID’s gone away, or at the very least it’s under control, and that things are fine now.”

A return to indoor mask mandates should case counts surge has been warned by Canada’s chief public health officer, and medical professionals are already calling for it to be reinstated as several countries around the world have seen a rise in COVID-19 cases in the past month and the emergence of new Omicron subvariants.

While he supports the idea, Schneider doesn’t believe bringing back the mask mandate would go over well with many Manitobans.

“The cat’s been let out of the bag… I think there’s been a failure in leadership across provincial governments, and the government more generally, in terms of not staying the course,” he said.

“And now a lot of the messaging is like, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I guess you’ve got your vaccines, I guess it’s OK,’ and now they’re going to switch gears, apparently, or allegedly, or maybe, and say, ‘All right, now back to the mask.’ I think people are going to be upset by that.”

Carr was more optimistic about the possibility, saying now that people have gotten through a mask mandate, they might be more amenable to the process coming back.

“I’m hoping that it would make sense for people to be on board and react and go, ‘We can see now the cases are circulating, we’re going back indoors, this makes sense,’” she said.

malak.abas@freepress.mb.ca

Malak Abas

Malak Abas
Reporter

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Updated on Tuesday, July 5, 2022 12:33 PM CDT: Information updated

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