There I sat at noon Tuesday in the local Hannaford supermarket parking lot. One of the dozens of masks I’ve accumulated over the past 15 months lay on the console. For the first time in a long time, I had a decision to make.

Should I don the mask, as I have so many times that it’s as reflexive as taking the keys out of the ignition?

Or should I silently declare my emancipation from the pandemic and – as the sign at the supermarket entrance says I’m perfectly free to do, now that I’m fully vaccinated – go barefaced?

I ditched the mask, took a deep breath and walked boldly into the store.

Almost immediately, I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you’re in a very public place and suddenly you realize you’re stark naked.

I spent only a few minutes inside – all I needed was a box of envelopes. But it was long enough to indicate that the end of Maine’s COVID-19 mask mandate will not be like flipping an on-off switch. Rather, picture a slow-moving dimmer.

I saw only two unmasked people – every other face in the store was still covered. It left me feeling like I was doing something wrong – even though I wasn’t.

Why, I wondered, with masks no longer required of those who are fully vaccinated, were so many shoppers still wearing them?

I was tempted to ask a few, but then thought of those viral YouTube confrontations that get picked up by the nightly news and the next thing you know the whole world thinks you’re a horrible person so you put the mask back on not to stay healthy but to hide.

I also couldn’t help but ponder, as I scurried to and from the stationery aisle, how others now viewed me.

Throughout the pandemic, walking into a store with no face covering signaled, with the exception of those who can’t cover their nose and mouth because of legitimate medical conditions, that you were a self-centered jerk more interested in proclaiming your freedom from tyranny than in keeping yourself, your loved ones and everyone else around you healthy.

Now, that line of demarcation has become blurry at best. Not wearing a mask signifies … what?

Does it mean you’ve been fully vaccinated, made it though your two-week waiting period, and thus have earned the privilege to walk into a store without looking like you plan to rob it?

Does it mean pandemic deniers who never covered up in the first place are now off the hook because, if anyone dares ask, they can simply say “I’m vaccinated” without being required to prove it?

And what about all those people still wearing masks? Do they have a specific reason to keep wearing them – not fully vaccinated, compromised immune system, haven’t brushed their teeth in a year – or are they so used to feeling those little elastic straps behind their ears that, like me in my dream, they feel unclothed without them?

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, left little doubt Wednesday that vaccination is a game changer when it comes to wearing a mask. While some businesses and workplaces, including his own, may still require masks for the time being, he said, the chance of coming down with COVID-19 post-vaccination is next to nil.

Asked whether people should feel safe shopping indoors without a mask, even if there may be people in the immediate vicinity who are unvaccinated and unmasked, Shah replied, “The answer is yes. That is just how spectacularly effective the vaccines we have are.”

Shah said the efficacy of the vaccines actually may has been “undersold” during their rollout. Here in Maine, he said, 99.96 percent of people who have been vaccinated have not contracted COVID-19.

But Shah also acknowledged “not everyone has the same conception of safety … We just need to recognize as a state, as a society, that not everyone’s there yet.”

In other words, herd immunity, which Maine is steadily approaching, is one thing. Herd mentality is another.

Some look at the numbers – Maine’s seven-day average of daily new COVID-19 cases stood at 142.7 on Wednesday, down from 225.6 a week ago and 360 a month ago ­– and see an ever-brightening light at the end of the tunnel. Others see the same number and say the coronavirus is still out there and as long as it is, you can’t be too careful.

The same goes for vaccinations. Many cheer the fact that 67.5 percent of Mainers 16 and older have received at least their first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson inoculation. Yet others point to the more than 3 in 10 state residents who have done neither and tighten their mask strings.

My guess is that with each trip to the store in the coming days and weeks, I’ll see more faces. This moment feels like a genteel social gathering where the host announces that the buffet dinner is ready: Nobody wants to go first. Then a brave soul picks up a plate and suddenly the chow line is 20 people long.

I look forward not only to leaving my own mask in the car but also to seeing my neighbors’ mugs again. Nor can I wait to replace the awkward fist bump with a good old-fashioned handshake – Shah said he’s already resumed pressing the flesh.

And hugs? I went to a family cookout in Massachusetts on Sunday and blissfully embraced everyone in sight.

So, to those who’ve done the right thing, covering up for more than a year and getting jabbed when it came your turn, congratulations. We’ve earned this moment of vindication.

And to those who did none of the above and now think you got off scot-free, remember that people continue to get sick and die. Until you smarten up and stick out your arm, you could still be next.

Meanwhile, here’s a sure-fire way to distinguish between those who are maskless and safe and those who are maskless and still kidding themselves.

The safe ones will be smiling.


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