As the group of friends talks and laughs together on the quad outside Snell Library, their mouths curl up to accompany their eyes in smiles. A warm spring breeze brushes across their cheeks, noses, and chins.
That’s right, the masks have come off.
But they’re not off all the time. Despite being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the rising second-year mechanical engineering students keep masks at the ready.
“We all know each other,” Vittorio Mount says. “Around strangers or other people I’m just a little more cautious because I don’t know if they’ve been vaccinated or anything.”
“I just never want to be not wearing a mask and make somebody else uncomfortable with it,” Jocelyn D’Amato says. “It’s better to have one.”
In line with state and federal public health guidance, Northeastern has lifted mask mandates in most spaces for fully vaccinated members of the community. But now that they don’t have to wear a mask, people are still wondering—on and off campus—whether or not they should.
And that’s normal after more than a year of masks being a social expectation, says Rory Smead, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern. Masks, he says, are no longer just about the health implications.
“We like to act in a way that helps us all fit in,” says Smead, who studies the evolution of social behavior. Government mandates may have been the catalyst for ubiquitous mask-wearing, he says, but “once we all saw each other wearing masks, that’s when it really took over and became the norm.”
For himself, Smead says, the behavior has become so ingrained and habitual that he instinctively puts a mask on when he gets out of his car—even if there’s nobody around and he’s just going into his house.
We’re in a “weird middle phase,” Smead says. “There’s a lot of trying to read what other people are comfortable with before you make your own decisions. And they’re trying to do the same thing to you,” he says, likening it to trying to figure out whether to walk by someone to their right or their left in a hallway to avoid a head-on collision.
It’s a balancing act between your own comfort and others’ that Panuwat Tragulroong, who will start his freshman year studying cybersecurity in the fall, can’t help but think about.
“I don’t want to wear a mask anymore because it’s so hard to breathe, especially when I play sports,” says Tragulroong, while taking a break from playing tennis (without a mask) at William E. Carter Playground. Still, he worries that he’ll make his friends or colleagues uncomfortable if he keeps the mask off while indoors.
“I’d really like to see my friends’ faces, and I’d like to feel normal,” Tragulroong says. “But a lot of people are still scared.”
The choice of when to wear a mask and when not to put one on is still evolving for many people.
“I’m not sure what I’m comfortable with yet,” says Thao-Vy Le, a rising second-year bioengineering student. “I think for the most part I’ll still be wearing masks, especially inside and in crowded places. But I’m fully vaccinated and most of the people that I hang out with are fully vaccinated.”
And, she says, “it’s just really weird to see people’s faces again.”
Social norms can change quite quickly, Smead says, particularly if there are external pressures like, say, a pandemic and government mandates. Just look at how rapidly masks became an essential part of the social fabric.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that masks will go entirely out of fashion quickly. “The thing about social conventions is that the thing that enforces them is the behavior and expectations of everybody else,” Smead says. “So if everybody gets to the same spot and there’s no outside reason to change that, then you should expect it to persist, to have a type of inertia behind it. Because there’s not some other force pressing us to change it.”
Still, he says, masks are not exactly pleasant to wear and do cause some social disruption. So that discomfort may serve as enough motivation to erode this pandemic-era social norm.
On the other hand, the pandemic is not over yet, even though case numbers in the United States have plummeted. Not everyone in the country is vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and the disease is still ravaging several communities around the world.
“My dad’s immunocompromised so I really feel for other people around me,” says Jarrod Homer, who is set to start his third year in electrical engineering in the fall. He plans to keep wearing a mask for at least a few more months, even though he got his second vaccination shot on Sunday.
Homer adds that he doesn’t want to tempt fate by removing his mask too soon. “I just think people should be cautious because after spending a year like this, I’d rather spend an extra two months than another full year of the same exact stuff,” he says.
Another person who is continuing to wear a mask is Lakshmi Priya Neelamsetty, who is earning her masters of professional studies degree in informatics. She is from Hyderabad, India and has been at Northeastern through the latest outbreak there.
“The situation there is really bad,” she says, referring to the ongoing surge in cases in India. “So just putting that in mind, it’s better we take precautions.”
Neelamsetty’s mother was hospitalized for 10 days with COVID-19. She is recovering at home now.
Trust, open communication, and starting small may also be important components in navigating this social transition, Smead says.
“A lot of social norms are unspoken,” Smead says. “But when norms are in transition, that’s when we need to communicate more so we don’t put each other off in different ways or spoil that trust.”
Hillary Chabot and Ian Thomsen contributed reporting.