For many, it’s a common courtesy or a sensible precaution. For others, it's an imposition, a daily irritation.
The face mask — a highly charged source of debate, confusion and anger around the world during the coronavirus pandemic — is now dividing people as the crisis eases.
Britain is bracing for acrimony on Monday, when the government lifts a legal requirement to wear face coverings in most indoor settings, including shops, trains, buses and subways. Donning a mask in many places will stop being an order and become a request.
Already, people are split about how to respond.
“I’m glad,” said London café owner Hatice Kucuk. “I don’t think they really help much.”
But Lucy Heath, a filmmaker, said she would prefer to see masks remain mandatory on the subway and in supermarkets.
“I just think vulnerable people will feel that they don’t want to venture out,” she said.
The end of many pandemic restrictions next week — once touted in British newspapers as “freedom day” — comes as the U.K. faces soaring coronavirus cases and rising deaths, despite an inoculation program that has given two-thirds of adults both doses of vaccine.
This week Britain recorded more than 40,000 cases in one day for the first time in six months. Globally, the World Health Organization says cases and deaths are climbing after a period of decline, spurred by the more contagious delta variant. Last week there were nearly 3 million new infections and more than 55,000 lives lost around the world.
Against that backdrop, British politicians’ talk of freedom has been replaced with words of caution.
“This pandemic is not over,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week. “We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday the 19th of July to life as it was before COVID.”
So while people no longer have to wear masks, they’re being told that they should.
The government says it “expects and recommends” masks to be worn by workers and customers in crowded, enclosed spaces such as shops. London’s mayor says masks will continue to be required on the city’s public transit system, and the National Health Service will insist on them in hospitals. And while the rules are changing in England, masks will still be mandatory in Scotland and Wales, which make their own health regulations.