ROCHESTER, Minn. — With the state of Minnesota having lifted its mask mandate — and Minneapolis and St. Paul dropping their ordinances this week — face coverings are no longer required in the state except for public transportation and at the discretion of businesses and large institutions.

But if official mask orders have now ended, the arrival of ever-shifting, unofficial expectations around masking have ushered in a confusing new chapter in the pandemic. If you're the sort of person who thinks about such things.

In short, by continuing to wear the face coverings, a portion of the population is likely to inadvertently create new rounds of confusion over what is socially expected, if not required when it comes to masks.

At a minimum, the new divide reflects a wide variability in how masks make some people feel.


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Masking: Awful, or no big deal?

Some people express no discomfort wearing masks, and even like them for personal reasons. Others find it upsetting to have something covering the face, which is a centerpiece for nonverbal communication.

The reasons for voluntary masking likely include habit, privacy, personal enjoyment, or a false sense of risk. Masking in the open air while alone, for example, would suggest an overestimation of the likelihood of contracting or spreading illness when outside with no one nearby.

But others might be continuing to mask in reflection of valid health concerns.

Indoors or in crowds, for example, still-maskers could be doing so out of the fear that they could be among the 1 to 5% for whom the COVID-19 vaccines will not work. It's a small risk, but a real one.

Alternatively, some people may be concerned because they are among the small percentage who have a condition that renders vaccines ineffective. Some may have decided to forego vaccination and are concerned about getting COVID-19.

Still others could be concerned that their vaccination protection or natural antibodies to COVID-19 might fail them in the face of a new variant, which is always a small possibility until case numbers drop nationally and globally.

As strangers inhabiting a shared space, we really have no way of knowing which of these reasons form the basis for a given person's masking, and one could argue that a person's reasoning isn't important for social cohesion anyway. Unwarranted fears are as real to the fearful as those which are warranted.

Masking etiquette, the what-ifs abound

Whether or not it is still required by authorities, masking has now entered the realm of societal etiquette in the United States, much like it did in the far east after a similar experience with SARS. In many ways, these social mores can be more challenging to navigate than official edicts from government.

For example, if you go into a store or a coffee shop without a mask and your cashier is wearing one, do you don a mask as you approach the counter, just to put them at ease? Then again, your cashier may be masking out of company policy, and really not care what you do.

But what about venturing into crowded locations that likely continue to make some people jittery, places such as movie theaters, meeting halls or nightclubs?

What about when placed in the presence of a masked family with children too young to be vaccinated? Should a person who is vaccinated support parents by donning a mask to help their children feel less conspicuous?

What about when coming in contact with the highly vulnerable, such as the elderly, or the sick? Though all are likely vaccinated, they cannot ever really know your vaccination status.

After all, you may know you are fully vaccinated, or have already fought off COVID-19 and developed whatever immunity that confers, but there's no way for your cashier or a stranger to know that.

Collectivism drives divide over masks

The ease or difficulty of sorting these questions during this next chapter of the pandemic — one that strips away orders from above and leaves it up to the public to sort out — could come down to questions of culture: The social differences that divide America in unusual ways.

During the pandemic, the support of masking was marked by wide differences between states and also within communities. This divide was often depicted as a reflection of politics, but it turns out that perception may have been false.

New research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a pair of Chinese universities suggests that masks were largely supported in certain conservative-leaning states such as Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina.

At the same time, the psychology researchers led by Jackson G. Lu, PhD, found masking was lower or extremely divided in historically liberal-leaning states such as New Hampshire and Minnesota.

Instead of a divide along political lines, their work found that what separated places supportive and unsupportive of masks was neither politics, socioeconomic status or population density, but a well-researched social trait known as collectivism.

The belief that the group's needs take precedence over those of the individual, collectivism is highest in Asian and Arab countries, lower in Europe, and lowest of anyplace in the world within America.

Within the U.S., collectivism is highest in Hawaii, and lowest in Montana and a handful of western states that include North and South Dakota.

Characteristically liberal-leaning states such as Oregon, Washington and Vermont all have lower collectivism scores than do the majority of southern states known for their conservative politics.

Alternatively, though it is sometimes considered a bastion of European-style social welfare, Minnesota scores as less collectivist than all of New England, California and the eastern seaboard, as well as Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

In short, collectivism versus individualism is about what we tend to believe, rather than how we vote.

These distinctions predicted who supported masks and who opposed them. The MIT research found that Hawaii had some of the highest mask usage and collectivism in the United States, while North Dakota was among the lowest in collectivism and mask use.

The researchers found this "link between collectivism and mask usage was robust to a host of control variables," adding their conclusion that "culture fundamentally shapes how people respond to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic."

The authors suggested a need to better understand the low overall sense of collectivism in the U.S. and from one state to another, should greater solidarity be required in the face of other natural disasters, such as hurricanes or wildfires.