There are certain fashion staples which dominate the Trinity campus – the black leather blazer, the too-full tote bag and, of course, for the past two years, face masks. Yet, as of Monday when the mask mandate was anticlimactically lifted, the latter has become a noticeable sartorial choice. Now that mask wearing is not enforced, many are choosing to attend lectures and wander the hallowed halls of the Lecky with the lower half of their face blissfully uncovered.
However, there remains another cohort of students who continue to wear their masks as if nothing has changed. Then, finally, there is the third group – in which I find myself – who seem to be stuck in a strangely indecisive bubble of social etiquette, unsure whether to mask or not to mask. The past three days alone have seen this group preoccupied with questions of whether masking up is still necessary, or if sauntering around unmasked is rude, still deemed as a broadcasting of germs and anti-masker status with every breath.
Upon attending my usual lectures on Monday – the first potentially mask-free day, there was a lurking uncertainty over how to navigate this new norm. Most of us entered the lecture theatres unmasked, yet, feeling a hovering guilt over doing so. My friend and I looked around, trying to discern how crowded the room was and whether a majority were wearing or not wearing masks. Our hectic gauging of the mask environment was interrupted, however, when the professor reminded us that masks continue to be recommended when large groups of people are in an enclosed space, at which point we immediately (and rather sheepishly) pulled up our face coverings.
As of Monday when College’s mask mandate was anticlimactically lifted, face coverings have become a noticeable sartorial choice
Despite having had coronavirus only a few weeks ago and, therefore, feeling fairly confident that I will not be catching it – or spreading it – any time soon, I have come to realise that I still feel more comfortable wearing a mask in most indoor spaces on campus. This may be a consequence of the spots that have erupted on my chin in recent months as a result of said mask-wearing, but in truth, I believe it is more likely due to social reasons. For me, wearing a mask has become a habit, and a comforting one at that. At times during the height of the pandemic, wearing a mask was the only thing that provided me with a miniscule feeling of personal control or safety against a coughing classmate or crowded bus.
More significantly, however, it was associated with making a political statement and, I would argue, a socially engaged one. Wearing a mask communicated not only that you wanted to protect yourself, but that you cared about the safety of those around you. It gave a nod that “we’re in this together”, in times when that phrase felt more trite than ever. Wearing a mask became not only sensible from a health perspective, but in adhering to a social norm.
That is not to say that I think it is rude or unsafe to go maskless around campus at the current time – rather, I don’t think it is a bad thing that we continue to pick up on cues and adapt our behaviours based on each individual situation. The idea of being a “sheep” or simply following others is often lamented, but here it seems ideal. If the people you are chatting to or sitting nearby have masks on, it’s likely that they’d appreciate you wearing one too. This consideration is even more heightened around those who are immunocompromised, for whom the lifting of all types of restrictions is undoubtedly more worrying than most.
However, if you find yourself in a sparsely occupied lecture theatre, and it appears that the collective choice is that a mask isn’t warranted, then by all means – be free. Ultimately, wearing a mask has always involved an element of choice, even in circumstances where it was obligatory. Whether you wore it properly or let it fall from your nose, whether you pulled it down to speak every few minutes or kept it on even when no one could hear you. Now that the choice to wear a mask at all is entirely up to the individual, it is an opportunity for us to realise that the road to “normality” does not have to be all or nothing. New-found freedoms do not have to be exploited at all times, but can be gradually rediscovered and enjoyed, to the benefit of those around us and our chins alike.