Hood on, cap off? In Washington, the face mask is a symbol of protection and virtue

On an icy February day, Daphna Torbert (23) wears a summery white dress with only a scarf over it and two face masks. One light blue, the color of her eye shadow, covering almost the full width of her face. The thin kind that nurses, doctors and dentists usually wear. Over it is a black one, the color of her hair. It is thicker and closes tightly above the nose under the chin thanks to a metal bracket and a stitched outer edge, but does not envelop her cheeks.

“The face masks that you can easily buy are just not good enough, so I always wear two,” she says, after walking out of a Whole Foods supermarket in Washington with a bouquet of tulips in her arms. Always? “I am a student and live with three roommates, they don’t mask. Because they refuse to protect themselves, I also wear them at home.”

Masking, an existing verb that means to disguise or conceal, has now become common practice in the US for wearing face masks. To mask or not to mask Now that it will no longer be mandatory or urgently advised anywhere in 2024, it is a sign of whether someone feels vulnerable, specifically to the virus, or more generally. And it proclaims, whether intended or not, that someone wants to protect others, even if they do not ask for it. While face masks in (Northern) Europe almost completely disappeared from the streets as soon as possible, in some parts of the United States they are still worn with religious devotion.

We are killing each other by not taking precautionsDaphna Torbert (23)student

Don’t convince Torbert that the corona pandemic is behind us. That through infections and vaccines we have built up sufficient defenses to walk the streets unmasked. That although Covid-19 remains a vicious and contagious virus – of which vulnerable people can become seriously ill and the long-term effects have not yet been fully assessed – most people have to learn to live with it like with the flu.

“The pandemic is not over. Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by a light haze of this deadly virus,” she says, based on information she mainly gets from X. “I think it’s sad that more people don’t realize that. We are killing each other by not taking precautions. It’s so politicized.”

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Linda Woodard (62) is almost as rigorous. “I only take it off in the privacy of my own home,” she says about her black, medical cap. Woodard works in the flower stall of the Giant supermarket. She is standing during her break, with her mask on her chin, smoking a thin cigarette. The Whole Foods where Torbert shops is one of a kind Market – but successful – full of organic chocolate and foreign cheeses. Giant is more of a Hoogvliet or Dirk, for the tighter wallet.

Woodard has had a tough time during the pandemic. “I have lost a good friend and a sister-in-law. My sister almost died from it. It has caused quite a stir in my community,” she says. Woodard means the black community: a minority that generally has less good access to care, lives in more cramped conditions and has work that cannot be done from home. Among whom, just like among Latinos, a disproportionate number of people have died from corona.

Linda Woodard.
Photo Emilie van Outeren

To protect herself, Woodard takes all the measures she can: vaccinations, face masks, distance – as far as possible. “I have a thyroid problem and high blood pressure, so I have to be extra careful.” She laughs a little. “Yes, I know, smoking is bad too.”

Woodard is no longer as afraid of dying from Covid as he was a few years ago. “But I can’t afford to get sick,” she says. Because of her permanent job at Giant, Woodard does have “excellent” health insurance, but she does not receive payment in the event of illness. After avoiding corona for four years, she got it this year just after the Valentine’s Day rush. “Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad how bad I was, but I had to take vacation days so I wouldn’t lose income. I still don’t feel great, but I couldn’t stay away any longer.”

Democrats vs. Republicans

According to a poll by the agency YouGov, which was last done in September, 6 percent of Americans say they always wear a mask. Another 19 percent would do this often or sometimes. As a predominantly Democratic city, Washington is certainly above average.

Wearing a face mask is not only for protection against the virus, but also a political expression, says political scientist Shana Gadarian. She wrote the book Pandemic Politics about how polarized and polarizing the American experience of the pandemic was. “We discovered that which political party someone belongs to was an important, if not the most important, determining factor as to whether someone embraced the corona measures. Republicans were very skeptical about masks and vaccines, even when they were [toenmalig president Donald] Trump arrived. Democrats were much more afraid of the virus itself. They estimate this to be much more deadly,” she says about her research, which she conducted at Syracuse University in New York state. “We still see more fear on that side. For some, wearing a face mask has also become part of their political identity.”

With a mask, Democrats can convey how seriously they take contamination and how noble they are to protect others against it. Republicans therefore see the face mask as a banner of virtue. Virtue signalingthey call it.

A two-afternoon tour of Washington shows that not everyone wears facial protection out of conviction. Some people have found that face masks are helpful against other discomforts. Hay fever, construction dust and cold. Face masks are also often worn during shoplifting and during demonstrations, mostly in Gaza in recent months. They have the added benefit of making people unrecognizable.

Max Kurjakovic.
Photo Emilie van Outeren

Others cover their faces because others don’t want to light. On the campus of Georgetown University, Max Kurjakovic (20) feels a little uncomfortable with his yellow, medical mask. “I would never wear this again,” he says. But he has the flu and when he went to the university care post to get a note saying he can’t go to class, he was handed a mask and told to wear it until he gets better. Even though he tested negative for Covid-19.

During the pandemic, which broke out when he was still in high school, he always wore the mask obediently. “Of course, we had to protect each other. It was the right thing to do.” When he started studying, he noticed that the social pressure to wear face coverings outside the classroom, where masks were mandatory at the time, was very high. “It has now decreased, but some people are persisting.”


A much larger group is still concerned about the virus itself, such as Torbert and Woodard. Fear still seems to be high, especially among ethnic minorities. A masked Chinese couple, who say they do not speak enough English, also put a face mask on their daughter, aged about four. When they leave the Giant, the father disinfects a squeeze fruit bag before she can drink from it.

Elsewhere, Gilbert Montan (72) from Bolivia is waiting for the bus. He goes back to his house, a room actually, outside the city, after looking for work in a restaurant in the posh Georgetown neighborhood. After sixteen years in the US, he prefers to speak Spanish and explains that he still finds the invisible virus creepy and does not fully understand how it is transmitted. “In the air, right?” He has no insurance. He depends on the free clinic for the poorest for care. “I’m careful, so I always wear the cap. It has become a habit. I don’t even feel it anymore.” Not that it keeps falling down his nose either.

Gilbert Montan.
Photo Emilie van Outeren

According to political scientist Gadarian, it is logical that people who are medically and socio-economically vulnerable, especially in a country without collective health care, do not trust that the government has their best interests at heart. “They are withdrawing into their communities and if the norm there is to wear a face mask, they will continue to do so.”

Flower seller Linda Woodard says she “can’t imagine” ever saying goodbye to her face mask. “Why would I: it costs me almost nothing to wear this. Prevention is better than cure.”

Exhausted and paranoid

In the expensive Whole Foods supermarket, Erin (34) – preferably no surname – thinks the same way. She still feels “exhausted and paranoid” from the pandemic. “We are all traumatized by it.” In her progressive social environment, everyone still almost always wears a face mask. They work from home as much as possible and rarely go out. She has friends who haven’t even gone to the supermarket for at least two years. Out of fear, but also because they had the luxury of having everything delivered. The dividing lines that corona drew are deep. The psychological consequences too. Erin is in therapy.

Just when the group fear subsided a bit, one of her housemates contracted long covid, severe fatigue after a corona infection. “It doesn’t bother me, so why wouldn’t I? Even if it is forever,” says Erin. “I also had a strong moral judgment about people without a face mask, but I try to be more empathetic about that. It’s exhausting to worry so much.”

Outside the DC bubble, there is social pressure not to wear a face mask, even for people who do so because of poor health, Daphna Torbert notices when she is with her family in Texas. She tries not to be angry at people who are less protective than she is. “I find it disappointing, but I blame myself for apparently not doing enough to inform them.”