Yes, please, we should ALL be masking in public: An open letter to empathetic people 🙏🏾

“There was a time when pretty much every person of sense regarded mask-wearing as the bare minimum — something only conspiracy theorists or anti-science politicos pushed back on. Back then, being cautious about the vaccine was met with more empathy than non-masking. Now, the reverse seems to be the case.”

Sydney Nicole Sweeney
12 min readFeb 12, 2023

Note: This is a 10-minute read. You don’t have to read it all in one sitting, but please, read the whole thing (on the toilet works just fine). And if you like what I have to say, then maybe others will, too—so please share. Thank you ❤

A pink graphic featuring a white medical mask and text that reads in white: You can start wearing a mask again.
C/O @eclipsedsunflrw on Instagram!

Dear Reader,

My name is Sydney and I’m happy to be writing you! First, I just want to say thanks so much: for not only giving me a few minutes of your likely-busy day to learn about this rather un-exciting topic, but also for being curious enough to even click on this article link, whichever way you found it. Because, let’s be real: Right now, many people (read: most) are not as open as you to hearing about Covid stuff. So, on behalf of the thousands of people like myself, who are still navigating everyday life with the pandemic in mind, I want to express gratitude. Thanks for hearing me out.

To kick things off, I want to lay down some overall facts. But first, I want to tell you about myself: I’m a 26-year-old American woman in “good” health, living in Los Angeles County. I consider myself well-informed, compassionate, community-oriented, and reasonable. There is a huge chance that you, dear reader, consider yourself to be these things, too. I genuinely think a vast majority of people see themselves as representative of these qualities — regardless of their age, political ideology, state of residence, health, or anything else. After all, we’re all just doing our best.

However, over the last three years, it’s become excruciatingly clear that a lot of people’s self-alleged “best” isn’t enough in the grand scheme of the ongoing Covid crisis. And I’m not saying these folks’ actual “best” isn’t enough, but that what they claim to be their “best” isn’t.

Instead, I believe the vast majority of progressive-minded people who once recognized the seriousness of the pandemic at its beginning have slowly resorted to leading with their feelings rather than their values (or the facts, which we’ll get to in a moment). People who once championed science and humanitarianism two, three years ago—say, by advocating for accessible vaccines, Covid testing, government-issued safety mandates, and beyond—have pulled a total one-eighty.

How can I be sure, you ask? Well, it’s quite conspicuous. I am reminded of how many individuals (even in a region as forward-thinking as Los Angeles, a diverse area filled with generations upon generations of people who consider themselves equity-minded and socially conscious) are not doing their absolute best to make their communities safer for everyone, including themselves, every single time I step foot into a public space and I am one of the only few people wearing a protective face mask indoors.

Indeed, this reminder follows me wherever I go—the pharmacy, an Uber, public transportation, the supermarket, any and all retail stores, the doctor’s office, the public library, the airport, a coffee shop, the hair salon. The list goes on.

As you’re reading this, you’ve probably become hyperconscious, even if for a split second, about where you are in this divide. Are you feeling clocked right now, like someone’s called you out? Or, on the contrary, are you feeling understood and validated—happy the author is on the same page as you?

This image is a screenshot of a tweet from a user named Cheryl Rofer. They tweeted: For all those removing mask mandates, I repeat a graphic I’ve been using since March 2020. We keep doing this over and over and over. The graph below the text is a D.I.Y. line graph tracking the correlation between new cases, time, and effort spent on covid safety.

Based on my observations, you probably fall in that first group. But don’t worry; I’m not here to shame you, I promise! There is a clear disconnect between your actions and your values, yes. But it’s not just you—the vast majority of people are like you. And I get it, I really do. Covid has changed everything for the worse. Humans are only wired to adapt to so much drastic change, and we all want to so desperately be done with the worst already. We all want things to be How They Were Before—and in chasing that feeling of Before, you’ve possibly left behind beliefs and behaviors that remind you of the fact that Before isn’t coming back.

And really, who can blame you for trying to move on? Humanitarian crises like Covid are best mitigated by a governing body—no one should be expected to figure out this sh*t on their own—but in the U.S., our authoritative institutions have, much like yourself, led with their “feelings” rather than the science, the numbers, the facts. Starting May 11, 2023, the U.S. government will no longer regard Covid to be a public health emergency. This is despite the following realities, not necessarily listed in order of importance:

  • 93.3% of the U.S. population lives in an area with substantial or high transmission (per Feb 1, 2023 CDC data synthesized by the nongovernmental organization People’s CDC).
  • Long Covid, a debilitating, disabling condition (that exists in not one, but four different forms, per Cornell Medicine research), affects about 20% of people infected by Covid, per CDC data, and for many, such long-term side effects have been bad enough to keep them from working, as reported by the New York Times.
  • Repeat Covid infections can increase one’s risk of organ failure — even if you are vaccinated and boosted. Take it from the epidemiologists themselves: “Without ambiguity, our research showed that getting an infection a second, third or fourth time contributes to additional health risks in the acute phase, meaning the first 30 days after infection, and in the months beyond, meaning the long COVID phase” (via Washington University School of Medicine).
  • Since the pandemic’s onset, an alarming number of young Americans are dying from heart attacks, according to a September 2022 study by Los Angeles’ Cedars Sinai hospital. Amongst people ages 25–44, there was a 29.9% relative increase in heart attack deaths over the first two years of the pandemic (this means the number of actual heart attack deaths was 30% higher than the predicted number, as noted by Today).
  • Nearly 9 out of 10 Covid-related deaths are of elderly folks, per the Washington Post — “the highest rate since the pandemic began.”
  • And, as with our elderly loved ones, millions of disabled (i.e. immunocompromised and/or otherwise high-risk) folks — comprising a class that’s been silenced by “everyone’s going to get it” and “it’s the same as any other flu or cold” rhetoric — have been further pushed to the margins of American society, forced to live an existence of isolation, and often solitude, just so they can stay safe, stay alive.

Yeah, I know, this is all extremely depressing information. I hate hearing it, too. So go ahead, take a few deep breaths if you need to; maybe even go for a walk for a bit (this article isn’t going anywhere, promise).

My point is this: Regardless of what the government says, regardless of how mentally tired of Covid we all are, we are, quite factually, nowhere near the “end” of the pandemic. And the longer we keep acting like it’s not A Thing anymore, the longer it will continue being A Thing — and the more people will be harmed. It’s time to accept that things will never, ever be the same. We have to mourn the past, the Before, and accept the present. Because the present is far more representative of how things will be in the future than how they were in the past.

A silly yet pointed meme of a illustration of a man putting his hand up, saying no to a mask. The text reads, “THANKS, I trust the government and their great track record of looking after vulnerable people.”

So what’s the first actionable step to accepting the present and doing our part to continue reducing harm for both ourselves and everyone in our communities? Well, thankfully, it’s the same easy step that it was way back in 2020: wear a mask in public spaces.

Now, I know what you might be thinking: The CDC doesn’t advise I wear a mask and neither does my state or local governmental authority. If masking helped to stop Covid from spreading these days, wouldn’t they still mandate it?

That’s a 100% valid train of thought. Again, we are supposed to be able to trust our public health offices, so I see where you’re coming from. However, the reality is that even though public health institutions in the U.S. have switched up and dialed down on mandatory Covid-safety guidelines, the original science informing these policies never switched up—nope, not once. In fact, even the CDC still reports that “Masking is a critical public health tool for preventing [the] spread of COVID-19, and it is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask.” (Remember: as we speak, over 90% of Americans remain in areas where transmission is high or substantial. And yet — the agency’s mask mandate has been long eradicated.) But research data evidencing the effectiveness of masking isn’t limited to government: Stanford researchers long found that surgical masks impede the spread of Covid.

And before you hit me with the, Well, not even workers in public businesses wear masks!—keep in mind that business owners only stopped enforcing mask-wearing because the CDC and local public health agencies stopped requiring businesses to require masks. Not because masking wasn’t effective.

Moreover, despite popular misbelief, even if only a few people are doing it, masking in public spaces is still a worthwhile effort. To illustrate, a while ago, the New York Times published a story that aggregated research findings from a variety of Covid-related studies. The bottom line? Although to a limited degree, single-way masking does protect mask-wearers from Covid more than non-masking. So, no, choosing to forgo a mask “because no one else is wearing one” isn’t a legitimate excuse. It’s simply bandwagoning. (This kind of excuse also minimizes the needs of high-risk people in our communities, who don’t have the privilege of bandwagoning without dying or becoming further disabled from Covid; more on these marginalized folks in a bit, because they matter just as much as us “healthy” folks. To think otherwise is discriminatory and prejudiced against people with disabilities.)

A pink graphic featuring text that reads: it’s not “going backward” or “reversing progress” to (re)start Covid precautions.
C/O @eclipsedsunflrw on Instagram!

All this is to say that, given that Miss Rona doesn’t discriminate, it’s safe to say that even limited protection is better than the alternative, aka raw-dogging the air. Plus, that air in question is way nastier than we’d like to think. If you’ve made it this far in this letter, I figure you already know that staying at home if you’ve been infected with Covid is a no-brainer. But here’s the unfortunate truth: tons of people aren’t as sensible as you. In one study by JAMA, 41% of participants admitted they’ve lied (“misrepresented”) about their Covid cautiousness, and, even more alarmingly, 21% said they avoided getting tested because they suspected they had the virus, while 20% reported, “not mentioning that they thought they might have or knew they had COVID-19 when being screened to enter a clinician’s office.”

So, back to the government: What made policymakers change their guidelines? Well, everything that should not matter when it comes to actual human lives—politics, “economics,” and, of course, feelings. Feelings that the American people are apparently “tired” of the pandemic; feelings that Covid is weighing down on our country’s morale; feelings that if the government endorsed illusions of safety, illusions of progress, people will, indeed, feel safe.

But after reading all this, do you really feel safe?

If your answer is no, then same! The good news is that it’s never too late to get cautious again, even if you’ve let your guard down as of late. And while there are tons of helpful ways to reduce harm in your community (Make sure your booster is updated! If you feel sick, get tested ASAP, and don’t assume it’s not Covid! If you’ve been in a high-risk setting, consider social distancing or PCR testing for a few days thereafter! Don’t shame people for being Covid-conscious! Etc)—the easiest and arguably most effective one, in a day-to-day sense, is to simply pop on a mask whenever you’re in public spaces, particularly indoor ones (as infectious particles can spread through any room or closed space).

If you haven’t been masked up for a while now, wearing one everywhere you go might feel bothersome at first. But I guarantee your entire community (and your own body!) will appreciate your efforts. Give it some time, and rocking your PPE will become secondhand nature again before you know it.

“Jenny’s account is, again, not singular. It is the account of millions of high-risk people, members of our communities who have been left high and dry by their peers and their government. What kind of world are we living in, where it’s socially acceptable to discount the lives of certain groups — when protecting these groups is as easy as doing the bare minimum?”

… On the other hand, if your answer is, eh, I’m still not too hung up about it, then maybe this anecdote will give you a reason to be: The other day I came across a TikToker named Jenny, who lives with chronic illness. She’s disabled and, like millions of other disabled people in the world, at high risk for Covid—which means she’s had to radically alter how they live life just to stay alive. For people like her, Covid caution isn’t a choice. It’s the only option, one that comes with sacrifices most folks couldn’t imagine, like not being able to pursue the most innocuous of hobbies, such as thrifting.

A screenshot of Jenny, a TikToker, who is saying, “Anyone else having this problem at the moment where you’re high risk for covid…” Jenny is a white feminine-presenting person with a stylish, short haircut and bright blue eyes. She’s wearing a grey sweater.
Jenny is @thisthingblog on TikTok!

“I’d like to have a look around charity shops, that would bring me joy,” Jenny explained in a recent TikTok, aptly describing her desire as unreasonable. “But it’s not safe to do so, so I can’t do it… so instead of going in person, I watch people go in person [on TikTok] go do it instead of me. And it helps… but then I remember that none of these people are wearing masks. And if any of those people wore a mask to the charity shop, then I might be able to go in person. And then I get sad again.”

Jenny’s account is, again, not singular. It is the account of millions of high-risk people, members of our communities who have been left high and dry by their peers and their government. What kind of world are we living in, where it’s socially acceptable to discount the lives of certain groups—when protecting these groups is as easy as doing the bare minimum?

Ironically enough, there was a time when pretty much every person of sense regarded mask-wearing as the bare minimum — something only conspiracy theorists or anti-science politicos pushed back on. Heck, back then, being cautious about the vaccine was met with more empathy than non-masking. Now, the reverse seems to be the case. In a society that is deeply, systemically ableist, the least you and I can do is check our privilege and act accordingly—compassionately. Also, we must keep in mind that not all high-risk people “look” high risk. You never know who you’re sitting next to on the bus, or standing in line with at the grocery store, or sifting through clothes racks with at the thrift store. Vulnerable people can be any age. They can have invisible disabilities. And like you and I, they have lives they’d like to live. Lives they deserve to live. Period.

A pink graphic featuring text that reads: Every time you choose to take Covid precautions, you keep yourself & others safe.
C/O @eclipsedsunflrw on Instagram!

If this penultimate argument wasn’t enough to make you rethink your reluctance to start making again in public spaces, I’ll leave you with this: the less we work to reduce harm, the worse off we all are, and that includes people who have never considered themselves vulnerable—say, you or me. Because, quite frankly, we are all victims of the American healthcare sham. It’s common knowledge that Covid has negatively impacted an already broken system. But it’s time we start thinking about the long-term consequences of ignoring the continual severity of the pandemic: for instance, chronic health conditions spurred by Covid infections will leave hospitals (and the frontline workers staffing them) more overloaded and overwhelmed than ever, making it harder for all people to get basic non-Covid-related care.

And this impending catastrophe isn’t exclusive to the United States. Today, I listened to a recent episode of The Journal, titled “Why Is The U.K.’s Free Healthcare System Falling Apart?”, in which a British man named Zahir told a story of his toddler nephew, Yussef, who waited in the ER for six hours before getting an ineffective antibiotic treatment for tonsilitis, which worsened into pneumonia after doctors informed Zahir that there were no beds available for Yussef—the systemic result of a flawed structure of healthcare in the United Kingdom, also impacted by Covid. In a matter of days, Yussef passed away. He was five years old.

So, please, do the bare minimum. Wear a mask in public spaces.

In Solidarity,

Sydney Nicole Sweeney



Sydney Nicole Sweeney

Sydney Nicole Sweeney is a journalist based in Los Angeles.