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1 March 2022

Whisper it, but I’m going to miss wearing a mask

As a woman, anonymity on the street was a delicious relief.

By Elise Johnson

There are parts of our reaction to the pandemic that were not so bad and I wish we could keep. Before you yell at me for jinxing us all into enduring a new Covid variant, hear me out.

The pandemic has taken so much away from us. We lost loved ones, our mental health declined, and between furlough and business closures many of us found ourselves taking a financial hit too. But, for me at least, there have been lessons from the past two years as well. Suddenly we were all pinged into an alternative universe, a life with different priorities. With the announcement last week of the end of all Covid restrictions in England, I felt myself pining for some of them.

It is not just working from home, which has been a revelation — for working parents and also for anyone who no longer has two rush-hour commutes a day. I’m going to miss some of the smaller, less obvious silver linings too, from facemasks to a quieter social calendar.

I might be alone with this one but, I’ll admit it, part of me is sorry to see masks go. While others complain that wearing them is uncomfortable and makes communicating difficult, I’ve loved the anonymous feeling it gave me. As a woman I am resigned to feeling constantly observed, but wearing a mask somehow creates a barrier between me and an invasive male gaze. There is a pub I walk past daily. I’ve noticed that if I wear a mask I’m invisible; if I don’t it feels like I’ve stumbled onto a catwalk as one of the regulars yells “give us a smile”. Usually I’ll tell them where to go, but sometimes it’s delicious to be invisible and just get home without being stared at.

Theoretically, of course, I could keep wearing one, but now that face coverings are optional, to mask or not to mask has infuriatingly become something of a political statement, so the invisibility trick has somewhat diminished. I’ll miss masks for that (and for their nose-warming ability).

Another Covid plus-point is its impact on city living in general. The full lockdowns when everything closed were bleak, but once restrictions started to ease life actually improved. Suddenly, we could book a table at a pub or restaurant — no more waiting for an hour to get into Dishoom or standing awkwardly at the bar for an entire evening. Better still, it was no longer acceptable to be asked to “just squeeze up” for some randomers to join your table. The general sense that strangers couldn’t invade your space was a blessed relief in a city as crowded as London.

Alas, the social norms that changed overnight seem to have come back just as suddenly, and as the gears of normal life grind on again, most of the considerations we made for one another over the past two years will fall by the wayside. But while we can’t control other people’s mask habits or restaurant rules there is one lesson to try desperately to hold on to, and that’s reducing the breadth of our social obligations.

During the various phases of the pandemic our social circles inevitably shrunk. You could only see a select group of people, which meant you were forced to choose quality over quantity. I, like most 20-somethings, am guilty of jam-packing my diary. Pre-Covid I’d end up seeing my friends on a rotating schedule every six weeks, regardless of whether or not I really wanted to. There was something to be said for not being a social butterfly, released from FOMO (fear of missing out) and free instead to focus on the people you knew were important. 

I don’t know if that’s a habit I can continue, but as the energy rushes back into London and I feel the social pressure building I’m going to try to maintain some of my pandemic ways.

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