Just after noon Tuesday, the food court at Polo Park mall is buzzing.

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Just after noon Tuesday, the food court at Polo Park mall is buzzing.

Although it is the day the public health indoor mask mandate lifts in Manitoba, the vast majority of shoppers — nine out of every 10, at least — are still wearing one.

It’s not too surprising: most people, it seems, are inclined to step out of the COVID-19 pandemic cautiously.

After lunch, I take a stroll. Somewhere past the escalators, I tug my mask below my chin, testing what it’s like to be indoors and bare-faced again.

Even though nobody else is near, it feels strange. After a few seconds, I put it back: content, for the moment, to stick to the former status quo.

In a tweet Tuesday, chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin encouraged Manitobans “to be kind to each other,” as the end of most COVID-19 restrictions may be stressful to some people, more than others.

Some, he added, may keep wearing masks based on preference or an assessment of their own personal risk.

Throughout the weeks leading up to Tuesday, I’d heard much the same.

Some people wrote about how they just aren’t ready. Some businesses wrote, out of respect to their staff and customers, they would keep mask rules in place. These are kind decisions: some have good reason to fear COVID-19 for themselves or those they love.

For myself, those concerns are not a factor.

Between my age, vaccinations and general good health, I’ve never been too afraid of catching the novel coronavirus. On the other hand, if keeping my mask on for a little longer helps bring reassurance and perhaps some protection to those who are most at risk, then count me in for wearing one. It’s no big imposition on me.

Yet, there’s another reason why, as I wandered the Winnipeg shopping centre, I found myself reluctant to take off my mask.

It’s something deeper, more habitual: after nearly a year-and-a-half becoming accustomed to wearing one in certain contexts, going without leaves me feeling exposed in ways that, at least at this juncture, no longer feel natural or free.

Among other things, the pandemic has offered curious lessons in how the ways we know how to be in the world can change.

I remember the first time I tried to wear a mask: it was several years ago, during a trip to Japan. In Kyoto, I caught the mother of all rhinoviruses, a gruesome cold. By the third day, although it had not fully abated, I decided to venture out.

In Japan, it has long been common to wear a face mask when feeling ill, a practice rooted in basic consideration of simply trying to stop your germs from reaching someone else. Knowing this, I bought a pack of surgical masks from a convenience store, and slipped one over my nose as I walked towards a train station.

It felt strange. Although I was in a place where the sight of people wearing masks was utterly mundane, I still felt uncomfortably self-conscious. Within minutes, I’d slipped the mask off, noting with interest that, as it turns out, my own cultural training insofar as how we present ourselves in public was far too powerful to undo in a single day.

I rode the train maskless, sniffling back my runny nose and catching the side-eyes from disapproving grandmothers in nearby seats. I was aware I was fulfilling a stereotype of the inconsiderate foreigner; but every time I thought about putting a mask on, it still felt too conspicuous and just too strange.

In the long months Canada was a mask-wearing nation, my tolerance shifted. They became like a second skin, as well as a privacy veil that suited my introverted tendencies and a useful layer of warmth in winter.

Now, I think back to Kyoto and I realize my relationship to masks has become almost the exact opposite of what it was. It may have taken months, but I am now accustomed to wearing them, as I am to any other item of clothing considered appropriate in public; it will take time to wish to be without.

(A side note: it has also become strange, just over two years ago, we considered it normal to be out in the world and interacting with people with visible cold symptoms. Even if widespread mask use does fade away, can we at least consider normalizing them for when one feels sick?)

There’s one more factor, in why I — and I suspect others — were reluctant Tuesday to remove our masks. It has to do with how bitterly the COVID-19 pandemic’s information wars were waged, and how masks became the battle lines of a much larger cultural and political division.

At some point, amidst the aggressive protests, maskless mobs, businesses which loudly refused to follow public health orders, and increasingly wild internet claims about the harms of mask wearing, these scraps of cloth or paper became something other than just a minor concession to manage the spread of a deadly virus.

They became a symbol, a tacit statement of where one stood on the pandemic itself, and also on which sources of information one trusted. Consider Roussin’s urging to “be kind” to people who still wear masks; consider the incidents in which people wearing masks were harassed by those opposed to mandates.

Those incidents certainly undercut the “personal choice” rhetoric; clearly, the issue is more loaded than simply that.

So it may be, at this point, the need for orders mandating mask use has passed; we can return to a society that largely lives without them without risking the health-care system.

But those bitter divisions remain. And as I walked through the mall I thought: there will come a time when I’ll do this unmasked. It does not need to be on the first day.


Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.