I recently celebrated my birthday with some friends at Vesuvio Cafe, one of San Francisco’s most characterful bars. The place was an old haunt of Jack Kerouac’s, and the alleyway that runs down its side is named after the writer. And it was in Jack Kerouac Alley that things got a little awkward.
To understand why, it’s first worth reflecting on San Francisco’s reaction to the pandemic. Mayor London Breed swiftly declared a local emergency at the end of February 2020, before any Covid-19 cases had even been recorded here. By April that year a mask mandate was in place.
In contrast to other parts of the country, where not wearing a mask or ignoring social distancing became ways of sending a political message, the people of San Francisco found unity in listening to and acting on informed official advice. To some extent, a mask broadcast two things about the wearer: I care about staying safe, and I’m not like those people in Republican “red” states.
This week, however, much of the city’s mask requirement will be lifted. Face coverings will no longer be needed in “restaurants, bars, gyms, grocery stores, offices, museums, and other locations”, unless you’re unvaccinated. Some places, like schools and hospitals, will still require them, but the move is the closest to a great unmasking that we’ve had yet.
And as the city prepares for the easing of restrictions, a complex new dynamic is playing out. Views on what constitutes good and responsible behaviour are clearly no longer uniform here — and disagreements that were once conducted over social media with people in faraway states are now beginning to happen within communities in “blue”, predominantly Democratic, America, and around tables in Jack Kerouac Alley.
That night at Vesuvio, while half of our party insisted that the group stay outside, others were getting fed up and cold. Some pointed out that the case count is still elevated, while others retorted that the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is not as severe as other strains. Eventually, we decided to venture indoors — you were required to show a vaccination passport at the door — though several of the group gave up and went home.
The potential for fractured relationships in previously harmonious masked and locked-down communities is real, and not helped by inconsistencies among the country’s leaders. Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that “people are tired of masks”, though she added that there is also a “huge chunk of people who still want [them]”.
President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, told the Financial Times recently that we are emerging from the “full blown” pandemic phase just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was urging states not to relax mask mandates.
No wonder, then, that a Pew study published this month showed 60 per cent of US adults admit to feeling confused by recent changes to guidance, up seven points since last summer.
As state governors and local politicians feel the pressure to reopen, it’s perhaps only natural that they would push ahead more quickly than some experts would advise. But it is also understandable if some of their voters remain unpersuaded that now is the right time to take off the mask and get back to indoor socialising.
A recent post on the community-based social network Nextdoor reflected the delicacy of the situation. “Let’s try to be kind and empathetic as the mask mandate drops,” began a post written by Howard Kushlan, who runs a brand consultancy in Palo Alto, south of San Francisco.
“If I see you in a store or walking around with no mask on, I would love to say hi!” he wrote, before adding: “And if I see you walking around outside or inside with 10 masks on, do you! Also, will love to say hi.”
Given how politically loaded such acts have become, it may well be that peer pressure and perceived social norms play an important role in determining whether or not we continue to wear masks or crush into bars. When the mandate lifts, I’ll almost certainly keep mine on. Heaven forbid any of my friends or neighbours think I’m an anti-masker.