Photo courtesy of Maya Bhattiprolu
Montgomery County entered Phase 3 of reopening on May 28, lifting restrictions on face coverings, social distancing and capacity limits just in time for Memorial Day weekend. This final phase removes limits on indoor and outdoor gatherings, but schools, public transportation, health care facilities, camps and child care centers still require masks. At WCHS, masks are still required for in-person instruction, but not for outdoor activities like extracurriculars and sports.
“It feels really freeing to be maskless outside, but when there are a lot of people around, it still feels wrong to not wear a mask,” sophomore Zara Kanold-Tso said.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 60 percent of Montgomery County residents are fully vaccinated. However, children under the age of 12 are still not authorized to receive the vaccine, leaving many feeling uneasy over the removal.
“I personally thought it was a bit fast to lift restrictions since a lot of people still don’t have their second shot and it’s hard to trust strangers,” Kanold-Tso said. “I plan on continuing to wear a mask when I’m in public with lots of people or indoors with people I don’t confidently know are vaccinated just to be safe.”
The decision to remove restrictions comes after the lowest rate of transmission since January 2020 and a 29.6 percent decrease in cases in the past seven days, according to the CDC.
“It’s possible that infections could increase quickly since the lifted mask mandate and social distancing advisories have encouraged larger groups of people to get together without masks, even when proof of vaccination is not required,” Kanold-Tso said.
Businesses are now able to make their own decisions regarding safety precautions, and most of them do not require proof of vaccination. Starbucks, Target and CVS are among the lengthy list of retailers that no longer require masks but still have social distancing guidelines in place and encourage unvaccinated customers to protect themselves and others.
“In most of the stores I have been to, like in Starbucks, a lot of people are still wearing masks,” Kanold-Tso said. “It’s comforting to know that these businesses are still taking precautions and to see their workers wear masks because we are still in the pandemic, and it doesn’t end just because the laws are gone.”
At Track meets, junior Julien Higgins has noticed changes in attitudes of both team members and spectators.
“At games and meets for Track, I have seen people gather into groups without masks. Even when people aren’t running they don’t wear masks, parents and other volunteers come to meets and gather in groups without masks, talking to runners and moving from group to group,” Higgins said.
For some, the lift signifies a return to normal, giving people opportunities to interact with others and get to know them. Sophomore Nathan Encinas moved from Japan to WCHS in the fall, when the mask mandate was still in place, and only met people through the Track and Field team.
“Seeing people that I knew without their mask was a shock because I had never seen their full face,” Encinas said. “I had only seen it when they were masked, so when they took it off, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what you look like.’”
For others, the ease of restrictions does not change their thoughts on safety precautions. Higgins plans on wearing his mask and practicing social distancing even with people who are vaccinated.
“I think it’s still important to wear a mask because you can still catch COVID with a vaccine, [getting the vaccine] just decreases the likelihood of you having to be hospitalized,” Higgins said.
While the removal of COVID-19 restrictions may come as a relief, it does not necessarily signify the end of the pandemic.
“I believe that as long as you are wearing a mask or social distancing, you can socialize in open space with people that you know and see regularly,” Higgins said. “We can’t act as though nothing is wrong and go back to living life as it was before while the rest of the world continues to live with COVID.”