New Honor System on Masks: ‘Am I to Trust These People?’

New coronavirus mask guidelines from the C.D.C. have left Americans wondering whether they can trust one another. And it’s been a challenging year for trust.

By Julie Bosman and Sarah Mervosh

CHICAGO — When Tori Saylor, 27, stepped out of her apartment in Kalamazoo, Mich., last week, she knew that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had already given fully vaccinated Americans the go-ahead to shed masks in most situations.

Ms. Saylor, who is vaccinated, wore one anyway. And when she summoned an elevator in her apartment building, she confronted her first real test of the new era: Twice, the doors opened to reveal people who were not wearing masks, and twice, she let the elevator go.

“Am I to trust these people, having never met them?” said Ms. Taylor, who has multiple sclerosis and gets an infusion therapy that compromises her immune system. Despite her vaccination status, it is unclear whether her body will be able to effectively produce antibodies to fight off Covid-19. “How can I judge whether someone is vaccinated by making momentary eye contact with them?”

For many Americans, trust is in short supply after a year of a long pandemic and the conflicts that have come with it.

Our capacity to trust other people’s honesty has already been tested, and fibs — or omissions — may have happened along the way. Did every person who drove across a state line follow 14-day quarantine rules? Did everyone who got an early vaccine fit the eligibility rules at the time?

So it is no surprise that the latest honor code — the federal government’s guidance encouraging vaccinated Americans to take off their masks — was greeted with skepticism in parts of the country that have not already done so. Fewer than half of Americans over the age of 18 are fully vaccinated.

“It’s a very complicated symphony right now,” said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan who is an expert on pandemics. “There’s been such an erosion of trust, distrust for government, distrust for the virus, distrust for this party or that party. So when you tell the public what to do, there are people who say, ‘How can I trust the guy without the mask?’”

Health experts say that vaccinated people should be protected from severe disease, even if people around them are not vaccinated and not masked. But the unusual sight of bare faces has arrived at a time when Americans’ trust in institutions and one another is particularly fragile.

After all, evidence of pandemic-era wrongdoing has been rampant: Prosecutors have charged dozens of people who are accused of fraudulently obtaining loans and other funds from the federal government related to the CARES Act. High schools and colleges, including the prestigious Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, have investigated students for cheating on remote exams while school buildings were closed because of the coronavirus.

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