Ask Philadelphians how they feel about Monday’s return of the mask mandate and the answer is unlikely to be one of ambivalence.
When asked about the city becoming the first in the country to reinstate the rule for indoor establishments after a rise in coronavirus cases, residents described feeling intensely emotional about the policy change.
“Very angry and a bit hopeless.”
As coronavirus cases tick up again after the post-omicron lull that brought the lifting of nearly all restrictions, some reported that Philadelphia’s decision to again require masks indoors affected their mental well-being — for the better or the worse, depending on their situation.
Some are comforted, feeling they can still keep their families safe while shopping at stores or eating at restaurants. Others are burned-out and fed up with restrictions, believing the case numbers aren’t high enough to warrant the move.
Philadelphia’s reimposition of the mask mandate is just the latest example of the pandemic up-and-downs that have marked the last two years. The ebbs and flows have caused whiplash and exacerbated fatigue.
On Saturday, several businesses and residents filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court, claiming Philadelphia lacks the authority to impose such a mandate.
Attorney Thomas W. King III, who was among those involved in last year’s successful challenge to the statewide mask mandate in schools, said the city’s emergency order went against recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and “imposed a renegade standard unfound anywhere else in the world.”
But among city residents, opinions are divided.
Renee Rapier, whose 10-month-old son spent more than a week at Children’s Hospital with COVID-19-related croup in January, said she has experienced “a background radiation of anxiety at all times” throughout the pandemic.
“It just affects every plan that we make,” added Rapier, 36, of Fairmount. “You just think through the possibilities. Sometimes it’s worth the risks, sometimes it’s not.”
But Rapier, who has type 1 diabetes, said her anxiety will be alleviated beginning Monday, when others will have to be masked indoors.
“When the mandate lifted, I remember feeling like I was losing any sense of freedom that we had, the comfort we felt going into the grocery store,” she said. “Little things like that.”
Her comfort levels will increase this week, she said, and she even plans to go to Reading Terminal Market with her family, something they would not have done a week ago.
In South Philadelphia, Meghan Winch said she will now be more likely to go inside to stores and businesses without worrying whether she will bring the virus home to her 4-year-old daughter, who is too young to be vaccinated.
“We have been balancing what is responsible and safe and what she needs for her mental health,” Winch said. “It’s been a lot of mental calculus and a lot of stress over whether we’re making the right choices for her. When there was the mandate, it was a little easier.”
“We know the data says she wouldn’t be terribly at risk,” she added, “but what if she is?”
While for some the return of masks alleviates anxiety, others see it as “a little defeating,” said Danielle Cooper, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and director of an intensive outpatient program for OCD at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
“This has been a very long process,” said Cooper, who treats patients at the school’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.
Others, like 38-year-old Greg Van Riper, say the return of universal indoor masking makes them feel frustrated, “dejected” even.
“It’s just emotionally draining,” said Van Riper, a student at Temple University. “Cases are not rising at that rapid of a rate to justify this again. I don’t see the need for it,” especially given that hospitalizations remain low and federal guidance has not changed.
“I’m vaccinated and, for the longest time, I was very pro-mask,” he said. But, “it’s two years later.”
How to cope
Penn’s Cooper has some tips for how to cope if the pandemic’s ups and downs are affecting your mental health:
First, “recognize that it is this period of uncertainty” that is affecting you. But at the same time, “recognize progress overall” and “recognize it’s not going back to where it was” in March 2020.
Assess your own personal risk and think of ways you can still engage with the world safely. “Focus on what you still can do rather than saying, ‘They’re bringing this back. I can’t do anything.’ ”
As it gets warmer, get outside. Outdoor activities not only pose less of a COVID-19 risk, but they have also been shown to generally increase happiness.
Seek out mental health resources, such as in-person or virtual therapy.
This article includes information from the Associated Press.