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Not everyone is ready to take the leap and stop wearing face masks

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Many people have been taking the masks off. Offices are reopening, and people are returning there, as well as to gyms and to restaurants, but many remain reluctant to change their COVID routines, even if they are not at high risk. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein listened to some of the wary.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Like everyone else, Devin Golden is thrilled omicron is in retreat, but he isn't ready to let down his guard - not even close.

DEVIN GOLDEN: I know a lot of people have stopped wearing their masks. I still wear my mask almost every time in public and especially indoors.

STEIN: Golden, who's 33 and lives in Palm Bay, Fla., isn't a germaphobe. He doesn't have any health problems that would put him at a high risk. He and his wife are fully vaccinated and boosted, but they just aren't ready to take that leap.

GOLDEN: There's still a little bit of, like, a lingering anxiety about being inside around a lot of people whom we don't know without a face covering.

STEIN: And it's not just masks. He's still glad he can work from home, hasn't gone back to the gym, taken a plane trip and is still not really socializing much indoors.

GOLDEN: There's an element of feeling kind of - missing out on stuff, I guess. There's certainly an element of, like, you know, feeling a little, you know, sad about that. It is what it is, I guess. I've kind of come to accept it in a way.

STEIN: Because he knows the virus is still out there, infecting more than 40,000 people and killing more than 1,200 every day.

GOLDEN: There's been stories about people who were just as healthy as me who have died - I mean, who have died from this. You know, there's - you know, it's rare, but it's not, like, 0%, so there is that risk.

STEIN: This can feel like an especially perilous moment for older people, people with weak immune systems and other health problems that make the virus especially dangerous. Parents of kids too young to get vaccinated are worried, too. Many feel left behind and angry. They're relying on other people to help protect them. But Golden is one of the many healthy people who aren't necessarily at high risk who are feeling out of sync with the world around them, too.

MICHELLE FORMAN: Yeah, it does feel sort of like a weird in-between time.

STEIN: Michelle Forman's 42 and lives in Kensington, Md., with her husband and two kids.

FORMAN: It does feel strange. It feels uncomfortable, you know, being in a store and seeing people without masks. It does feel uncomfortable. I do think that in a lot of ways, a mask for me and for my husband and my kids feels a little bit like a security blanket. You know, it has been this thing that we have gotten so used to wearing, and it feels normal, and it feels reassuring.

STEIN: So even though they're all fully vaccinated and healthy, too, they'll keep masking around other people to protect themselves and others from COVID and long COVID.

FORMAN: I know many people, as we all probably do at this point, who have had COVID, and even seeing what kind of the severe end of mild looks like is definitely not something I want for myself or my family.

STEIN: So they're still not eating inside restaurants, going to the gym or movies either, still only socializing and doing playdates outside; same goes for Amy Klager. She's 45 and lives outside St. Paul, Minn., and it's not always easy, especially for her three kids who are fully vaccinated.

AMY KLAGER: In our neighborhood, we've been the most paranoid. The kids have noted their friends say that your parents are paranoid and crazy, and why are they making you do this? But the girls still wear masks even though they are getting peer pressure.

STEIN: Public health experts say it's not surprising different people are reacting very differently at this moment. Monica Schoch-Spana is a medical anthropologist at Johns Hopkins.

MONICA SCHOCH-SPANA: We're going to have both, for some, a sense of liberation, for others, a really sense of even deeper endangerment and in the middle, a lot of confusion.

STEIN: And some people are feeling pressure to do things they may not feel comfortable doing - eating inside restaurants because friends are tired huddling around propane heaters and fire pits, trudging back to the office before they're ready, feeling like the oddball being the only one still masked up.

SCHOCH-SPANA: You can feel alone, the only one wearing a mask in a room, and also feeling in danger at the same time. And that's a very scary place to be.

STEIN: Ezekial Contreras is 24 and lives in San Diego. He's lost touch with friends who've gone back to the gym maskless, and he's worried about showing up for job interviews wearing his mask.

EZEKIAL CONTRERAS: I'm worried that that's going to be a problem, like they're going to want me to take the mask off or something, but I think I would just refuse to take the mask off.

STEIN: In the end, each individual has to become kind of an amateur epidemiologist, calculating how much risk they're willing to take over and over again, every day, in each situation.

ROBERT WACHTER: There's no bright line that separates safe and not safe.

STEIN: Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco, says it depends on where you live, your age, health and what for you is worth taking a risk and what isn't.

WACHTER: Got to be sort of forgiving of ourselves and our neighbors. You know, our brains have all been pickled in anxiety for two years. You can't snap your fingers and say, you know, don't worry about it at all, in part because it's hard for the brain to make that kind of a pivot and in part because the risk is not zero, it's just low.

STEIN: For his part, Wachter is still masking up most of the time, but he's also resumed doing some things he did before the pandemic because he knows COVID isn't going away, and this could be as good as it gets for a very long time.

WACHTER: If you're waiting to, for example, eat indoors until the risk of COVID is zero, you may be waiting forever. And that - you know that may be where you live. It may be you're risk averse enough to say I'm OK living that way. But if you don't want to live that way, this is a time where I think you should be dipping your toe in the water and getting used to accepting a tiny bit of risk in order to have the tradeoffs of living life a little bit more normally.

STEIN: Some people, like Michelle Forman in Maryland, are just starting to dip their toes.

FORMAN: We are slowly wading back into a lot of those things, but I think taking our mask off indoors in public, aside from, like, a doctor's office, is probably - you know, I think it's going to be a while.

STEIN: And others are still totally hunkering down, afraid to catch omicron and worried that yet another dangerous new variant may be lurking out there. Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RACHEL'S' "THIRD SELF-PORTRAIT SERIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.