Mandate or No Mandate, I’m Still Wearing a Mask — for My Own Damn Health

So far, I haven't contracted COVID. Following the city's flip-flop on its latest mask mandate, I'm relying my own common sense — and remaining vigilant.

Photograph by Catherine McQueen / Getty Images

It finally happened: One of my best friends lost their “COVID-19 virginity” over the weekend. After over two years of not knowingly contracting any coronavirus variant, they tested positive. “This was my first time,” they texted our bestie group chat. “I was hoping to remain a COVID virgin through all of this.”

So far (knock on wood), I haven’t gotten COVID, nor have any members of my immediate family or the rest of my close friends. Although the CDC places Philly at a low COVID-19 level, it feels like everyone around me is starting to test positive. The good news is that like Vice President Kamala Harris, who recently contracted COVID, they’re only experiencing mild symptoms, because they’ve been vaccinated and boosted.

Since going back outside, I’ve been meticulous about how I safeguard myself. For the past six months, I’ve gotten tested for COVID twice a week (every Tuesday and Friday), stayed masked up, gone to mostly vaccinated-only indoor gatherings, and only traveled by air once. When cases increase (as they did in mid-January), my outings decrease.

Up until now, I’ve relied on the city’s health department to guide my thinking on how to navigate the pandemic. I thought Philadelphia was setting a national example when Mayor Kenney’s administration went back to mandating mask-wearing indoors, becoming the first major American city to do so when its COVID warning system saw a surge. But in a total 180, the city quickly scrapped the requirement and then ended its COVID-19 response system as well. While the city has dropped its mandate, it still very strongly recommends masks. Perhaps this is the city’s way of acknowledging that official enforcement of masking won’t work anymore.

The city claims these abrupt changes were “based on an assessment of hospitalization data and Philadelphia’s overall risk level,” but I can’t help but wonder what effect public pressure from businesses had. And there was also the SEPTA decision, based on a federal court ruling that Kenney said was part of his decision-making but that Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said wasn’t. That was the moment I realized that I couldn’t keep relying on the city to determine what’s safe for me. The about-face makes it feel like the city is all over the place — and makes me wonder what effect dropping the system of response levels will have. Despite what looks like progress against the virus in Philadelphia, this goes against current rising cases across the region.

Translation: I’m not rolling the dice with this mandate back-and-forth — I’m keeping this damn mask on and remaining vigilant until further notice.

One thing this pandemic has taught us is that this virus is unpredictable as hell. One moment, cases are down, and it looks like we finally have a grip.The next, a new variant emerges, and we’re semi-panicking all over again. This yo-yo of precaution is counterproductive for anyone hoping to find some level of normalcy.

I understand those who are afraid to leave the house and have chosen not to for health and/or personal reasons. If a new variant begins wreaking havoc, I doubt we’re going back to a lockdown now that vaccinations are accessible. This isn’t the time to completely give up on public health measures, but it’s also important to personally read the room when it comes to assessing your risk.

At a moment when I’m seeing many around me lose their COVID virginity, I’ve become resolute that I don’t want to lose mine, because I still don’t know how it might individually impact my health. So if that means I continue to avoid crowded areas, still wear a mask on my Uber rides and SEPTA (even if they don’t require it anymore), and remind people in the store to please give me my social distance — I’ll do it.

So many anti-vaxxers have embraced the phrase “my body, my choice.” Perhaps it’s time those who believe in science claim that spirit and put self-interest above the greater good. When it comes to considering my COVID virginity — and the health of those around me who may be immunocompromised — it’s my body to protect, my choice to remain vigilant.

I’m wearing the mask.