As 2023 holidays dawn, face masks have settled in as an occasional feature of the American landscape

NEW YORK — The scene: a busy shopping center in the weeks before Christmas. Or a department store. Or perhaps a crowded airport terminal or a train station or some other place where large groups gather.

There are people – lots of people. But look around and it's clear that one thing is largely missing these days: face masks.

Yes, there are the odd ones here and there, but nothing quite like it was three years ago, at the start of the first winter holiday of the COVID pandemic – an American moment of controversy, recrimination and contempt on both sides of the mask debate.

As 2023 draws to a close, with promises of holiday parties and crowds and plenty of unintentional exchanges of shared air, mask-wearing is far more off than on across the country, even as COVID's long tail lingers. The days when anything approaching a widespread mask mandate would be like the Ghost of Christmas Past: a glimpse of what was.

However, look at it another way: Nowadays, wearing masks has become something that just happens in America. In a country where, prior to the pandemic, the mention of a mask usually meant Halloween or a costume party, it's a new way of being that hasn't gone away, even if most people don't do it regularly.

“That's an interesting part of the pandemic,” said Brooke Tully, a strategist who works on changing people's behavior.

“Home food delivery and all those types of services existed before COVID and were actually on the rise,” she says. “But something like wearing a mask didn't really have an existing principle in the US. It was something completely new with COVID. So it's one of those new introductions of behavior and norms.”

It's mostly situational, like the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospital system's recent decision to reintroduce mask mandates in its facilities starting Dec. 20 as it sees an increase in respiratory viruses. And for people like Sally Kiser, 60, of Mooresville, North Carolina, who runs a home care agency.

“I always have one with me,” she says, “because I never know.”

She doesn't wear it all the time depending on the environment she's in, but she will if she thinks it's wise. “It's kind of a new paradigm for the world we live in,” she says.

It wasn't long ago that the fear of becoming infected with COVID-19 accelerated the demand for masks, with terms like “N95” entering our vocabularies alongside concepts like mask mandates — and the subsequent, and intense, backlash of those who felt it. was an overreach by the government.

Once mandates started to expire, masks started to fall off and demand dropped. It dropped so much that Project N95, a nonprofit launched during the pandemic to help people find quality masks, announced earlier this month that it would halt sales on Monday because there wasn't enough interest.

Anne Miller, the organization's executive director, admits she thought widespread mask use would become the rule, not the exception.

“I thought the new normal would be like what we see in other cultures and other parts of the world – where people just wear masks out of an abundance of caution towards other people,” she says.

But that's not how standards work, either for public safety or otherwise, says Markus Kemmelmeier, a professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

In 2020, Kemmelmeier authored a study on mask-wearing across the country, which found that mask use and resistance to mandates varied by region based on circumstances, including pre-existing cultural divisions and political orientation.

He points to the outcry following the introduction of seat belts and seat belt laws more than four decades ago as an example of how practices, especially those required in certain parts of society, may or may not catch on.

“When they were first set up with all the feel they had and the effectiveness of it, there was a lot of resistance,” Kemmelmeier says. “The argument was basically a lot of complaints about the curtailment of individual freedoms and so on, and you can't tell me what to do and so on.”

In New York City's Brooklyn borough, members of the Park Slope Co-op recently decided there was a need for the long-standing, membership-required grocery store. Last month, the co-op instituted mask requirements Wednesdays and Thursdays; for the remaining five days there is still no requirement.

The people who proposed it weren't focused on the COVID rates. They were thinking about people with weakened immune systems, a population that has always existed but became common knowledge during the pandemic, said co-op general manager Joe Holtz.

Supporters of the co-op's mask push emphasized that people with weakened immune systems are at greater risk of catching others' respiratory illnesses, such as colds and flu. By implementing a period of mandatory mask use, they will be better protected, Holtz says.

It was up to the store's managers to choose the days, and they deliberately chose two of the slowest instead of the busy weekend days, Holtz says, a nod to the reality that mask requirements elicit different responses from people.

“From a management perspective,” he says, “if we were to try and if there was a negative financial impact from this decision, we would want to minimize it.”

Those shopping there on a recent Thursday seemed unimpressed.

Aron Halberstam, 77, says he doesn't usually mask much these days, but wasn't deterred by the requirement. He wears a mask on the days he needs to, even when he doesn't otherwise — a middle ground that reflects what's happening in so many parts of the country, more than three years after the mask became part of the daily conversation and the daily life.

“Any place that asks you to do it, I'll just do it,” says Halberstam. “I have no resistance to it.”

No matter how great the resistance, says Kemmelmeier, the culture has changed. People still wear masks in crowded stores or when traveling. They do this because they choose to do so for their own reasons and not because the government demands it. And new reasons may also emerge, such as when summer wildfires made air quality poor and people used masks to deal with the haze and smoke.

“It will always find a niche that suits it,” he says. “And as long as there is a need somewhere, it will survive.”