Why Face Masks May Stick Around Even When the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Over

Some people may choose to keep wearing masks even when the pandemic is over. Filippo Bacci/Getty Images

Now that the United States population is building immunity through vaccinations, some might wonder if we’ll still be wearing face m…

Some people may choose to keep wearing masks even when the pandemic is over. Filippo Bacci/Getty Images
  • Now that the United States population is building immunity through vaccinations, some might wonder if we’ll still be wearing face masks on the other side of the pandemic.
  • Public health officials have been loosening mask requirements.
  • Some people may choose to keep wearing a mask in public settings for many reasons including wanting to protect others from infections, and find relief from social anxiety. 

Across the United States, local public health departments are starting to loosen their mask mandates.

Recent guidance states that vaccinated people can shed their masks in certain indoor settings and that unvaccinated people can often go maskless outdoors. 

Masks have, for the duration of the pandemic, served as protective shields against COVID-19. 

They’ve protected us from inhaling aerosols and respiratory droplets carrying bits of the coronavirus, and they’ve protected others from being exposed to our potentially infectious droplets.

Now that the United States is building immunity through vaccinations, some might wonder if we’ll still be wearing face masks on the other side of the pandemic.

In Asia, people have worn masks for decades. There, it is seen as a courtesy to mask up when you’re sick to stop germs from spreading to others. 

The United States will likely see mask wearing decline as immunity increases, but many Americans will likely choose to hold onto their masks even after the pandemic ends.

To prevent seasonal illnesses 

Face masks provide protection against a range of infectious diseases. They protect us against COVID-19, but they can also act as a shield against common respiratory illnesses like influenza and the common cold. 

“Since millions have been wearing masks, the common cold and flu virus in the last year was significantly less [prevalent] compared to years before,” says Dr. Bindiya Gandhi, an integrative and family medicine physician based in Atlanta, Georgia. 

Asian countries have a long history of people wearing masks to prevent airborne transmission of infections. The practice became even more commonplace in Asia after the SARS outbreak in 2003.

“It seems likely and sensible that many people will continue to wear masks after the immediate threat of COVID-19 has subsided,” says Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. 

To cope with social anxiety

People with social anxiety and other mental health conditions have found relief in wearing face masks. 

People with social anxiety often fear judgment or criticism from other people, and a mask can act as a physical and psychological barrier.

A 2020 study from Poland found that mask wearing was linked to lower levels of anxiety. 

Health experts say that while there are other, more effective strategies for managing mental health conditions, it’s clear that face masks are providing benefits to some. 

“This isn't the best way to deal with social anxiety, but may be a temporary safe haven for many for now,” Gandhi said. 

During travel and public transportation

Gandhi suspects that masks will become widely adopted during air travel and public transportation. 

“I think people will be wearing them during travel and public transportation from now on mainly as a preventative measure, and I suspect these industries may make it mandatory despite vaccination,” Gandhi said. 

People who are immunocompromised 

Individuals who are immunocompromised — such as those undergoing chemotherapy or people living with HIV — often wore masks prior to the pandemic as everyday illnesses like the common cold and flu can be deadly if their immune system can’t fight the infection. 

“We see this in hospitals and even when those people are out in public,” says Cutler. 

We will likely see more people — including those who are immunocompromised or have underlying health conditions — wear masks in public spaces. 

“The likelihood of mask wearing will be greatest for the people who are most vulnerable, when the disease threat is greatest, and when circumstances make them more fearful,” Cutler said. 

Masks are an easy way to prevent serious illness

The pandemic has shown us that face masks can effectively prevent the spread of communicable diseases — not just COVID-19, but also the flu and common cold. 

Each year, the flu causes approximately 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and up to 61,000 deaths in the United States. If more people wore face masks during flu and cold season, we could significantly reduce the burden of disease we see year after year. 

Years from now, we will likely see some people continue to wear masks in public settings. 

“Wearing a mask can be equated to wearing a seatbelt or stopping smoking. It saves lives, costs little, and is risk free,” says Cutler. 

The bottom line

Now that the United States population is building immunity through vaccinations, some might wonder if we’ll still be wearing face masks on the other side of the pandemic. Though mask wearing will likely decline after the pandemic, many will likely choose to keep wearing a mask in public settings to avoid getting sick, protect others from infections, and find relief from social anxiety.