Andrew Sullivan compares wearing masks to gay men wearing condoms

April 25, 2021 • 12:00 pm

In his latest piece on Substack (click on screenshot, though you may have to be a subscriber), Andrew Sullivan, who is HIV positive, compares condom use by gay men to prevent HIV viral transmission with masks worn by people to prevent transmission of a different virus: Covid 19.

Sullivan, who’s been taking the HIV drug cocktail for years, and says his viral load is undetectable, has also been vaccinated against Covid.  In his view, mask-wearing around similarly vaccinated people is now optional. He maintains that the chance of getting the virus while wearing a mask, or of spreading it to others, is virtually nil. And this, he says, is also true for HIV: if your viral load is sufficiently low because you’re taking anti-retroviral drugs, condom-less sex with a similarly low-HIV partner taking the cocktail is virtually risk free. Therefore, just as gay men feel that they can have sex “bareback”, as Sullivan calls it, so we should be able to go maskless around people if both we and they are vaccinated.

A few quotes:

In this way, gay men became as attached to condoms during AIDS as many of us have to masks during Covid. They remained a reflexive totem of responsibility, a sign of continued vigilance, a virtue-signal to oneself and your partner — long after they made no sense as a way to avoid HIV if you and your partner were already being treated. From those of us with zero viral loads at the start to those today taking the newer “prep” pill that prevents HIV infection, bit by bit, the condom rule has disappeared.

And yet not using a condom for sex — though the overwhelming norm for humans in history — felt weird and scary for a while in the late 1990s, like going into a restaurant without a mask now. Walking my dog in the park mask-free last weekend, I felt the same jitters as when I first stopped using condoms. I felt naked, and a bit daring. But I really had nothing to worry about in either case. I almost certainly couldn’t transmit either HIV or Covid and if I ever somehow got Covid again, it wouldn’t kill me. Just as there is nothing to fear if a few fully vaccinated friends come over for a cozy smoke sesh and chill in 2021, there was nothing rationally to fear in 1997 if two men, fully treated for HIV, had sex without a condom. The moral panic long outlasted its viral reason.

And this:

. . .we are in a similar phase in which reasonable people are being irrationally demonized for going back to normal and going mask-free. It makes no sense, but the truth is we get attached to rituals of safety, even after they have become redundant. Look at airport TSA screening, twenty years after 9/11. We so identify with safety protocols that it can feel dangerous simply to follow reason when circumstances change. The fear of Covid somehow gets internalized and perpetuated, just as HIV was. Even today, for example, a diagnosis of HIV feels far more terrifying than, say, diabetes. But diabetes is much, much more problematic now than AIDS, over a lifetime. Covid now seems much scarier than the flu. But if you’ve been vaccinated, that’s exactly how we should think of it. Nasty, but not fatal. So live!

It is true that Covid is not over; that we should not totally relax; that many who refuse vaccines could be a problem; that mutations matter. For what it’s worth I have nothing personal against masks. I wore them from early February of last year and was punctilious about them. But the situation has changed, and as more and more get vaccinated, and the human “herd” of the vaccinated grows larger, the odds of infection will decline. Bottom line: this viral motherfucker is on the ropes and we do not need to be in a state of permanent terror.

Sullivan hastens to add that he’ll probably continue to wear a mask on planes and trains forever, and he has no problem with bars and restaurants demanding proof of vaccination for entry. But he adds that the argument for wearing masks to be a “role model” also has a cost: “if people see no-one being liberated by the vaccine, they’ll be less likely to get one. And if leaving masks behind is the fruit of vaccination, the more people in the party the more will want to join.”

But is not wearing a mask easily interpreted as a sign of being “liberated by the vaccine”? I don’t think so.  Most maskless people, I suspect, are simply those who object to masks and have not been vaccinated. Remember, only half of Americans have now received at least one shot.

He ends like this:

So get vaccinated. Then use reason. The point is to get back to normal life, not to perpetuate the damaging patterns of plague life. So take off your masks, if you want. Plan parties for vaccinated friends. Get your vacation plans ready. And stop the constant judging and moralizing of people with masks and those without. Summer is coming. Let’s celebrate it.

But there’s a difference between masks and condoms that Sullivan doesn’t mention—or at least a possible difference. We still do not know if you can infect someone else if you’ve been vaccinated against Covid—as an asymptomatic carrier. We already know that you can get infected if you’ve been vaccinated; after all, the protection afforded by even the most efficacious vaccines is 95%, which means that there’s still a chance you could get Covid if you’ve had the jab(s). Granted, it’s a much reduced chance, and the vaccinations reduce the chance to about zero of your being hospitalized or dying, but getting infected still means that you might be able to spread the virus even if you’ve been vaccinated.

The only question I have is whether, if you get infected post-vaccination, you would be an asymptomatic carrier, not knowing you could carry the virus. And we also don’t know whether, even if you’re an asymptomatic carrier, you could carry enough virus to infect others. If all this is in fact the case, then there could be a large number of vaccinated people who should wear masks because they could spread the virus. If they were asymptomatic, we wouldn’t know who they were unless they got a Covid test, and even then you could get infected after the test.

Here’s the difference between condoms with HIV and masks with a vaccination. Those you could infect if you’re vaccinated are not your sex partners who are aware of any risks. They are clueless people you come in contact with. That’s not the same as having HIV, possessing a very low virus titer, and not using condoms when having sex with a similar person. In that case the two informed adults make a judgment. For someone vaccinated against Covid who doesn’t wear a mask, that person alone makes the judgment, putting other non-consenting people at risk.

Surprisingly, though, we still don’t know if vaccinated people can be asymptomatic carriers. According to NBC News Boston (my emphasis):

Dr. Kimi Kobayashi, the chief quality officer at UMass Memorial, said it is important for everyone to wait the full two weeks after the second shot for the body to build up immunity. However, he also said everyone needs to keep taking precautions until more of the population is vaccinated.

“We’re in a complicated stage where some are vaccinated and some aren’t,” Kobayashi said. “It is really important to remember – even as vaccines become available – it doesn’t mean everyone is vaccinated. We still have to wait for a large number of population to be vaccinated.”

Kobayashi noted that experts still don’t know if someone who is vaccinated can transmit the virus or not.

Now how this translates into the big question—should you still wear a mask if vaccinated?—is more or less a judgment call. Personally, I still wear a mask when I’m around others. It’s still required at my university, in planes and on public transportation, and in stores in Chicago, so there’s no dilemma. The only time I don’t wear a mask is when I’m at home, in my office when nobody’s around, and when I’m exercising outside and far from other people. In these cases there is no chance that I could infect anybody.

Now I may be kvetching for no reason, as Sullivan doesn’t say that we should go maskless around people who may be unvaccinated. And he does say “use reason”. But he also says that we should “get back to normal life”.

Until we know whether vaccinated people can be asymptomatic carriers, I don’t see a reason to stop wearing masks. I suspect that the answer will be “no”, but I’ll wait for the science before I start debating whether I discard my mask—when it’s legal to do so.

And remember that in some places in East Asia, people always wear masks in public. There’s an argument for this, as it protects you against various respiratory ailments. I notice that since the pandemic hit over a year ago, I have had neither a cold nor the flu. I’m sure that my compulsive hand-washing and mask-wearing (and my flu shots) explain the lack of illness. But I’m not sure that I want to continue wearing a mask when the danger of Covid has largely passed. I am going to keep washing my hands more often, and I’ve learned how to do that properly.

What is your feeling on mask wearing? When will you stop, if ever?

79 thoughts on “Andrew Sullivan compares wearing masks to gay men wearing condoms

  1. Also it is unknown how effective the current vaccines are against the variants of concern like P1. Some lab studies suggest the vaccines don’t offer full immunity against P1 and with many areas of the world not having access to vaccines and/or permitting large gatherings (India and Brazil) or people just flaunting rules in general in places that have both, there are going to be new variants being cooked up. I rarely leave the house with working from home for the last year and we are in a lockdown again with the B117 variant putting lots of people on vents and a sloppy provincial government that ignored the recommendations of its science table, and I’ve started using N95 masks approved by the federal government and tested by several labs for use in infectious areas (when I leave the house). Canada was able to scale up local PPE production enough that these are readily available to the public and I ordered directly from the manufacturer. It’s P1 that made me go this route away from surgical masks often doubled with a cloth mask.

  2. I guess I’ll continue wearing a mask until I’m advised that it’s no longer mandated on the basis of the science. The wearing of condoms (or not) by gay men and under what circumstances should similarly be led by the medical consensus.

  3. It’s an analogy. While the piece sheds light on the context and politics, I would not make any decisions on behavior based on anything but data specific to the scenario, and certainly not on analysis from an essayist.

  4. East Asian mask wearing:
    My recollection of life in Japan was that people wore masks when they were ill (cold/flu, hence mostly in winter) to protect others, not to protect themselves from others. I’d be curious to know what readers living there now have to say. Incidentally, I see in Japanese TV programs on NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster, that a number of people are wearing transparent lower face guards (with ear loops and a little piece to hold them on the chin) which seem to me to be useless for protection and fairly marginal to prevent aerosol spread; though they offer the advantage that the speaker’s mouth and facial expression is visible. And I see a significant proportion of people not wearing masks properly (e.g. below the nose rather than over it).
    Mask wearing for the vaccinated:
    I’ll get my advice from someone other than Andrew Sullivan: if he wants to go “bareback” for sex or COVID, that’s his choice, but I’d prefer my advice from someone with medical qualifications; and “back to normal” may be a long time coming because of vaccination resistance. Stores still require masks, transportation requires them, the local medical clinic requires them (and I wonder if they will ever back off that), and I don’t see the need to rush into bravely showing my lower face. And bareback sex and maskless COVID are not the same thing: bareback sex is two people assuming a common risk that one of them is infections in an activity of mutual choice; maskless COVID is one or both of an infectious person knowingly or unknowingly spreading the disease to people who did not consent to receiving it except only by being in the same space and an uninfected person risking infection – the second is foolish, the first is something worse.

    1. My experiences in Japan in the 80s/90s was the same. They wore masks when they were sick. It was not something the general public did for some other reason.

    2. Back in the last decade I spent several weeks in Tokyo on business. I used to see these people in the street wearing these masks and I assumed it was something to do with avoiding breathing in pollution. I thought it was a bit silly and pathetic of them until somebody told me that these people were ill and were wearing the masks to stop me from getting ill too.

      It’s weird how one small piece of information can completely change your perception of people.

  5. Sullivan’s attitude does not seem to be based on reason if he says that there is zero risk involved in either of those activities. We know the effectiveness of the vaccines is high, but even if it is 90%, that could mean that on the average it will fail to work once in every ten exposures. As long as the virus remains common in the population, it makes sense to wear a mask and be careful in public places even if you are vaccinated. When the virus becomes rare enough that the risk of multiple exposures is low, then the masks can rationally come off.

    1. Erstwhile pollster Frank Luntz interview a group of 18-24yo who openly and enthusiastically said they’d be happy to used forged vaccination cards, seeing them as their passport to freedom without having to bother with pesky shots. So no, I’m not trusting many of my fellow humans for quite some time.

      1. This baffles me – why not just get the jab and the card? If it cost, I would understand more. But it’s free, it’s good for health and it protects those around us. It’s a no-brainer. And I say that as someone who got the J&J the week before it got pulled. Still feel lucky to have gotten it done.

        1. About 40 percent of the US population is anti-mask and anti-vaccination, about the same number who approved of and voted for Trump. So that’s probably the number of young people who will get fake cards. So yes, no-brainer, except what that means here is that these people have no brains.

    2. That’s not how I understood the 90% figure. I thought it meant that the vaccine was effective in 90% of people i.e. the vaccine is 100% effective on nine people in ten and 0% effective on one person in ten.

      1. Yes, that’s why I said “…that could mean…”. I don’t think the clinical data can distinguish between these two interpretations of the odds at this time.

  6. I would probably quit the mask as soon as they take the requirement away. I see some places that have signs saying wearing the mask is recommended but not required. I think in this country, when the risks are all known and may be over, the masks will go. The question is, will this thing ever go away? Lots of republicans out there who will not get the vaccine. How long is it going to take to vaccinate the world. India is a disaster.

  7. This pandemic has clarified the sad truth about the human race, that it collectively acts out of emotion instead of logic when threatened, and it is incapable of properly assessing existential threats such as pandemics or climate change and protecting itself appropriately.
    So even if we as a species eventually overcome this virus, which is relatively benign, others will come which are more virulent and contagious—picture an airborne version of ebola—at the same time that climate change disrupts global food and water supplies and causes widespread political chaos.
    Sullivan is rationalizing the situation to justify what he wants rather than what is real. So even smart humans fail at logical assessment and appropriate action.
    Sorry to be a downer, but I expect the future to be rocky.

  8. I agree with our host that 2 consenting adults with HIV and undetectable viral counts discarding condom use is very different from going maskless in public.
    I think we should continue to wear masks in closed areas, shops, cars ( if not alone), classes and the like. In open air, especially if not closely packed such as during sports events, popconcerts or political rallies, masks are not really necessary, especially if there is a bit of wind.
    Note that in closed spaces air replacement (say proper ventilation) is even more important than masks, which are already quite effective. I’m not Japanese, but I always wore a mask going to work when having a cold or flu-like syndrome.
    I share the experience of no cold (in my case just one, way less than the 4 to 6 I normally get) or flu over last year. I mean, masks do work, and it is such a minuscule ‘burden’.

    1. “I always wore a mask going to work when having a cold or flu-like syndrome.”

      Perhaps one of the positive side-effects of this pandemic will be that people will no longer be expected to drag themselves to work when they are suffering from a cold or flu.

        1. Yep. If there is one thing to take away from this pandemic it’s try to be more like the Japanese when it comes to social responsibility and respect toward the elderly. Our behaviour in the west is despicable in our disregard for others and our homicidal ageism.

        2. Yep, I experienced that in the early 2000s. Having spent some time in LA during an era when the first thing on the morning news was the smog index with warnings that elderly and the young should stay indoors, I thought perhaps the people wearing masks were guarding against pollution. I asked a friend and he told me the real reason. It fit right in with many other cultural traits I observed there.

  9. “For someone vaccinated against Covid who doesn’t wear a mask, that person alone makes the judgment, putting other non-consenting people at risk.”

    I have to imagine ‘non-consenting’ people wouldn’t put themselves at risk. If one is concerned about getting the virus, one should either stay home, or take all necessary precautions when out and about (e.i. social distancing, masks, etc.) It’s gotta be virtually impossible to infect someone who is actively trying to avoid infection.

    We have to remember that there’s always been vulnerable immunodeficient people in our society who would be in serious trouble if they caught any type of infection. Because they know they are immunocompromised, the act accordingly. They don’t expect society to adapt to their concerns. I know this sounds callous, but I don’t see a better way of handling this that does not entail a complete disregard for autonomy and personal responsibility.

    Also, there’s really no evidence of actual cases of asymptomatic transmission. Brett Weinstein and his wife went over the data and found it shockingly erroneous verging on fraudulent.

    1. There are a lot of people who don’t have a choice to stay home or social distance, people who work in service and transportation jobs, etc. If it’s left up to personal choice the pandemic will never end, which is what most medical experts have already resignedly concluded.

    2. It doesn’t sound callous, it is callous.
      And calling for people to wear masks in closed public spaces “a complete disregard for autonomy” is completely over the top, and ” a complete disregard for personal responsibility” is neither here nor there. Not wearing a mask in public spaces is a disregard of personal responsiblity.

    3. Herber:
      I’ve watched every episode of the Weinsteins. They’re bright folks, for sure, but BOY are they off center when it comes to this and vaccines (a fact I’ve noted in their youtube comments though usually the only place I do this kind of thing is WEIT).

      They’re verging on “hesitant” and conspiracy minded these days.
      I think the whole Portland BLM Thing has shaken them up, rattled their brains. It sounds like their city has come a cropper.

      You do know they’re probably more vaccinated than any person we know – all their trips to exotic places (Madagascar/Panama/Ecuador/Brazil/etc) so their (slight) hesitancy here – their “questioning” pisses me off. As well as his hare-brained crackpot theories of “escaped from Chinese lab” bs. Which the actual experts have debunked long ago.

      Asymptomatic transmission is REAL.

      D.A., J.D.

    4. Why is it so hard to wear a mask? Why go through all the torturous rationalizations to justify why you as an individual don’t have to wear a mask? If you really don’t want to wear a mask why don’t you stay home?

  10. I follow all of my university’s mask and other prevention mandates, and I wear a mask indoors everywhere except at home. My teenage kids are not vaccinated yet so there is some risk there (I’ve had one AstraZeneca jab).

    I favor the cautious approach to all of these choices, but as the pandemic wears on, and as more people get vaccinated and we get closer to lifting some public health measures, I find my values tilting toward the costs of lockdown and social distancing.

    I found this blog post to be an especially clear-eyed view of the benefits of vaccination and of preventative measures versus the costs of lockdowns and social distancing.

    The take-home message is that everyone who can get vaccinated needs to get a vaccine asap. We can’t continue with lockdowns and social distancing forever. But without very strong uptake of vaccinations, we will have to choose between either long-term social distancing and prevention (with terrible economic and social consequences) or lifting those measures and risking very large numbers of people dying (many more than have died already). I realize this is preaching to the choir here 🙂

  11. Seems US vaccinations will flatten out at 70ish percent [ ].

    Without the 20 to 30 percent of US adults who are reluctant to get vaccinated, it will be difficult if not impossible for the country to bring disease transmission to a halt. That means the pandemic could continue to drag on.

    I didn’t expect a nation with fairly good healthcare to possibly continue be a source of SARS-Cov2 mutations forever, but there you go.

    Re face masks and HIV, it is really hard to place and compare the contexts – here we only use masks when we can’t keep social distancing, i.e. risk super spreader events at worst.

    SARS-Cov2 is curable and a pandemic, HIV is neither of those.

  12. I’ll get my 2nd Moderna in a couple of days, and nothing at all will change. I expect to continue masking and washing for at least couple of years, since there are so many refuseniks out there that will never change. If there’s ever a vaccine passport sort of thing put in place, it will immediately by scammed and forged, and local areas and maybe even some states will refuse to go along with it. This is the US. This is how we do things here.

    1. I get my second AZ on Wednesday, and I agree with you. In the UK we are a bit above the US in vaccination rates, but I’m not yet at all confident that we’ve got this thing nailed. I would personally be quite happy to keep on with the habit of wearing a mask in crowded public places in return for being allowed to get back to a semblance of normality.

      For instance, we have not been to a Harlequins rugby match for nearly 15 months, and we are just contemplating renewing our season tickets for 2021-22. I can’t see that this will be practicable without sensible precautions for some time to come. It’s a price we’ll be delighted to pay.

  13. What about when the only unvaccinated people left are those who refuse to be vaccinated because Bill Gates or something? At that point, even if there’s no conclusive evidence that vaccinated people aren’t contagious, I’m not wearing a mask.

    And what if there’s conclusive evidence that vaccinated people can still be contagious? Even then, why should everyone wear masks to protect those who have chosen not to be vaccinated, considering that in most cases their choice stems from absurd conspiracy theories, willful ignorance, or superstitious nonsense?

    1. Some people either can’t be vaccinated (allergies or conditions that mean they can’t be) or the vaccination won’t protect them because they aren’t 100%. So it’s not just the ones refusing but they are the ones that will make masking necessary as they cook new more virulent variants.

    2. Totally agree with you re “absurd conspiracy theories, willful ignorance, [and] superstitious nonsense”

      But what Diana said is right. Plus the refuseniks who get COVID and end up in an overflowing ICU will be taking up an ICU bed that someone in a car wreck needed. Allowing all those refuseniks to get sick affects lots of other people not in that category. It’s aggravating to have to protect the refuseniks from themselves, but it protects others as well.

      And that’s the point at which mandatory vaccination starts to look like a reasonable approach. Because a vaccination rate for adults of 70% will not get us to an R0 value that prevents overwhelmed hospitals under a return-to-normal: the vaccines are only at best about 90% effective; kids aren’t getting vaccinated yet; lots of other people can’t get vaccinated; so overall protection rate will be something more like 50%, and the other 50% will still be vulnerable to infection and disease.

      1. I of course have no idea how prevalent this may be, this is merely one anecdote, but to my complete surprise several people that I know that are enthusiastic Trumpers, talk about all the Qanon conspiracy theories as if they are real, think that Trump is going to return to office sometime soon and have been talking conspiracy fueled nonsense about the vaccines for months, went and got vaccinated when the opportunity arose to easily do so.

        It would be nice if this turned out to be a common trend, but I wouldn’t count on it.

  14. I’m fully vaccinated via two doses of Moderna. I wear a mask in public to encourage others to do so and so that I won’t be taken as one of those COV-idiots. I suspect I will wear one until the scientists tell us that the infection rate is infinitesimal and that it is ok not to wear one, though we’ll have to think about what level of risk is acceptable.

    1. Before the current Covid crisis, these two facts were held by most experts in their fields:
      – masks, expecially cloth masks, offer either no or neglible protection against spread of viruses (hence their absence at that time from WHO guidance and both US and UK pandemic planning documents). Obviously, the evidence of their effectiveness since then should be considered, but the evidence from empirical studies (and the only RCT) has shown masks are ineffective. The fact that a large number of lab-based studies say masks should work is insufficient to overwhelm the emprirical evidence, especially as these lab-based observations were carried out in the heat of the crisis and by a society where mask wearing became politicised.
      – coercion through fear inflation is unethical (e.g, the code of ethics for The British Pychological Society) and, I would argue, saying you shoud wear a mask to reinforce the fear of an infection until is infinitesimal is fear inflation.

      1. You are overlooking the point that a) people have learned more in the meantime and b) masks are effective (though more for protecting others than protecting yourself).

        1. I didn’t overlook it (I may be wrong, but I didn’t overlook it): I stated that “the evidence of their effectiveness since then [when the pandemic started] should be considered.” I then concluded (and here’s where I could be wrong) that the evidence, since the pandemic started, still seems to point to masks being ineffective: the majority of empirical studies show no impact, the majority of lab-based studies (stimulating breathing using mannequins) show it works, but I discount the latter because the former is better for predicting real world impact and the latter, I fear, has been overly influenced by the political nature of mask wearing (i.e., scientist and journals are more keen to highlight the benefits of masks and this bias, unconcious or otherwise, has led to a skewed view from just lab-based studies).

          1. You may want to revisit some of this information. Of course, there are various types of masks: cloth, surgical level 1, 2, 3, N95 to name the majority of them. Since it is settled that the coronavirus is airborne (it never really was in dispute; a lot of that confusion came from poor communications about science debates about weather it was spread through aerosols or droplets which for us is really a distinction without a difference). Since most of the spread is through droplets, that drop to the floor at different rates depending on various environmental factors, a mask is good at preventing these droplets from getting into the air where they can be breathed in by others. This explains why a lot of viruses, including the coronavirus that gives us Covid-19 spread less in summer: not only are we outside where there is better ventilation, but also there is more humidity in the air which causes droplets to drop to the ground faster.

            So any mask is better than no mask, especially with the variants of concern. B117 is ravaging where I live now and there is more evidence that any indoor contact with a person shedding this variant is dangerous. That’s where N95 masks help because all masks have their weakness in the fit and if you seal an N95 properly you are better protected so you get protection as others do as well since you are not breathing in except through several layers of filters. This is why health care learners and professionals are “fit tested” with their N95 masks before they are permitted to enter infectious areas.

            Given the way this virus spreads (droplets mostly) masks are a very effective tool in slowing spread (along with social distancing and avoiding indoor activity as much as possible).

  15. Masks are mainly performative. In many countries they don’t have a political dimension so people wear them because it’s still mandated in certain places and not for other reasons. As soon as the mandates disappear so will the masks and that’s a very good thing in my opinion.

    1. No. Not actually performative but their end will EVENTUALLY come.
      Oh it’ll be lovely… in time. When we reach some kind of herd immunity. Which we won’t with …. (I prefer to use the term Dangerous Idiots) ….the… “vaccine hesitant” running about. And straight out deniers assisted by Faux Noos and the GOP to assist in their delusions.
      At that date I’ll throw my mask off my balcony with fireworks and Champaign.
      D.A., J.D.
      (angrier response to Sulli’s bs below …. if you DARE…..)

      ps I hope my fire in today’s comments doesn’t run afowl of Da Roolz, if so I appeal! 🙂

      1. I don’t understand the big deal with people and not wearing masks. Seriously it helps, but there’s people out there in the world who just refuse to do what it is suggested of them. smh.

        1. “Seriously it helps…”

          This is not quite correct. It only help given certain assumptions.

          If two fully vaccinated people are walking up the street together it doesn’t help at all. I doesn’t help for me to wear one in my home with my wife who is also fully vaccinated.

          I’m old enough to have some mild hearing loss. Mask wearing makes it harder for me to understand what people say when they talk. Masks are a detriment under some conditions.

          Fully vaccinated people are no hazard to me and I’m no hazard to them and for us to wear masks around each other helps nobody at all.

          That said, Scorch’s upstream comment that “Masks are mainly performative” is equally wrong. Masks protect unvaccinated people, and people with compromised immune systems, from each other.

          1. yeah but how do you know who is not infected and who is? that’s why the mask protects us, sure you could be around people you know mostly and if they don’t have it neither should you, until you get around people who are sick, then you catch it, not knowing you have it and spread it to your friends because they don’t expect you to have it. All this came from not wearing a mask, so make it safer for people please, and just wear it.

            1. Knowing who is and who isn’t protected is independent of whether the specific masking situation is helpful or not. I’m not a hazard to anyone so my masking doesn’t actually help. The unvaccinated person should be wearing the mask. If they aren’t, then their risk increases, as well as the risk of others who are unvaccinated. Those people can benefit from wearing masks. They get no benefit from me wearing one. If they can’t tell that I’m not a threat then they should stay away from me, which they should do even if I am masked.

              1. Don’t forget also the partially vaccinated who can still get the virus and spread it though it is less likely. It’s such a sticky situation we are in now. I was on a “coffee chat” call with a group of people from Canada and the US talking about how to make people feel safer with things opening up. Students in US universities (Canada is at a different point as our population is at about half of us half vaccinated and a few of us fully vaccinated) feel apprehensive with mask rules going away. And I think a lot of that fear stems from not trusting others have been vaccinated. At some point you just have to read the stats, get yourself fully vaccinated and hope for the best I think. If your population is 70% fully vaccinated and 20% partially vaccinated you probably are okay. But the anti-vaxx have spoiled it for a lot of us I think and inflicted a bit of PTSD. Also, unlike us, many aren’t soothed by statistics.

              2. Partially vaccinated people should also wear masks, of course.

                While anti-vaxxers are a hazard to humanity, fully vaccinated people wearing masks doesn’t solve that problem.

                The rationale for fully-vaxxed folk to mask up is performance… It doesn’t prevent transmission of the virus. It does communicate something about the wearer but this signal is noisy and the message can be “I’m still afraid”, “Remember the virus”, or “I’m on the blue team”. IMO these messages are better communicated in other ways, especially since it also communicates “I’m not concerned about your ability to understand me when I talk.”

          2. Masking makes other people feel safe around me and reminds people gently that the virus is still out there and that they need to get vaccinated. If that’s “performative”, then I’m a performer. It’s a small price for me to pay to do a little to get us to herd immunity or simply reduce the prevalence of the virus.

            1. Who, exactly, is made to feel safe around you, Paul?

              I’m doubtful that it actually does help get us to herd immunity. Vaccinations are the only way we’ll get there. We should be motivating unvaccinated people to get their jabs, not penalizing those who have for the psychological benefit of people who don’t know if an unmasked person is vaccinated or not.

              I have this argument with my wife all the time. The other day we ordered some sushi for dinner via delivery. We were sitting outside on the porch since the weather was lovely. She wanted me to put on a mask when the delivery guy was expected, for the reasons you just gave… “small price, etc.”. I declined to do so because it made no sense… the delivery instructions were “leave at front door”. The guy arrived. He was unmasked. Would us putting masks on make any difference at all? (other making it harder for me to understand anything she might have said to me)

              1. Yes, vaccinations are the only way to get to herd immunity. The point I was making is that wearing a mask is a signal to the unvaccinated that the virus is still out there and they should get vaccinated.

                Your sushi delivery guy was outside and had no expectation of meeting anyone and so his not wearing a mask was reasonable. If you made it impossible for him to deliver without interacting with you closely, you should have a mask. If you backed away and allowed him to place the order on your front step safely, then you don’t need a mask.

                All of this seems to place such a high burden on wearing a mask. Until we are totally out of the pandemic, we should wear a mask unless we’re in a situation we can be sure one isn’t needed. If in doubt, wear a mask.

              2. I think you put the responsibility in the wrong place, Paul. If the delivery guy wears no mask (and he’s not vaccinated), that’s on him. I’m not protecting him if I put one on. And if he’s not wearing one, it is not because I’m not masked. It is the responsibility of unvaccinated folk to wear masks, and to get vaccinated so they, too, can stop wearing them. Your protocol will result in permanent mask wearing because there will always be some folk who refuse to be vaccinated. We’re at the point now, here in the US, where there’s no legitimate reason for nearly everyone over 12 to be vaccinated. We need carrots and sticks for the unvaccinated, not signaling by fully vaccinated people. An “I’m fully vaccinated” button in conjunction with an absent mask says far more than habitual masking by those who pose no risk.

              3. I thought you were pointing out that the delivery guy had no expectation of meeting anyone on your delivery because of your “leave it at the front door” instructions. That’s certainly how I would interpret them. These days such instructions are often given for exactly this purpose.

              4. Masks should be worn until the risk of infection is much lower than it is now. This disease is deadly for some. There are many still unvaccinated and some can’t yet be vaccinated. There is also the possibility of variants for which vaccination is less protective. Finally, there is a small chance you can catch it and spread it even if you are vaccinated. The protection isn’t 100%. Again, masking sends a signal that the disease is still out there and that people should get vaccinated. Masking for a while is a small price to pay. To do otherwise is simply selfish. With that I’m out.

              5. I really wish we had quick tests. Having a big function, everyone get a quick test to make sure you’re good especially if there are people who can’t be vaccinated present.

              6. Ah, I understand how you could have read it that way. The instruction is just part of my profile in the ordering system, a relic of earlier pandemic times. My point was that even with the fact of this instruction, my wife’s “small price” logic results in the request for me to mask up. This is a response driven by PTSD of a sort, not by reason. She somehow feels safer with a mask. But she isn’t. Nor is he.

                I’ll just add that your demand that “Masks should be worn until the risk of infection is much lower than it is now. ” can never be satisfied. I’m a fan of masks, but only when they actually help. Not when the benefits are “feelings” or miniscule. Everything comes with a price, including mask-wearing.

  16. Dunno if Sullivan mentions it in his Substack piece, but he has a bit of a Cicero pro domo sua interest in comparing going without masks at this stage of the COVID pandemic with HIV-positive men declining to wear condoms once efficacious medicine became available, given that, two decades ago, he was involved in a dustup when is was publicly disclosed that he had been advertising anonymously online (under the screenname “RawMuscleGlutes”), at the website, seeking to engage in condom-free sex, preferably, though not exclusively, with other HIV-positive men.

    1. lmfao. people are so crazy, the fact that he goes to a website called “” to have unprotected sex is a little much for me. Thanks for the post, because i did not even know sites like that existed.

  17. God DAMN it – Sulli and his theories piss me off.

    I don’t know even where to start with his latest – other than to summarize it as “YOU ARE RIGHT, PROFESSOR and HE IS WRONG.” On many levels. And I’m not saying that just b/c I like your blog.

    Sulli has exhibited his medical ignorance regards illegal drugs also (an issue closer to my heart). His embarrassing ignorance on all things medical is exhibited every time he flaps open his gaping maw.

    Is HIV the **ONLY** reason people wear condoms (even talking about the 4% of humanity that is gay)? No. Right?
    I’m glad I’m not paying to read his bloviations, false equivales and half baked theories.

    Right. I’m half vaxed but even in a month I will ***continue** to wear my mask (in the exact places you do) for “team spirit” if nothing else, forget even the possibility of non-symptomatic spreading (which is why I get the flu shot every year). Why is it people can’t conceptualize “non symptomatic infection”? At worst… to remind people this is still a Big Problem particularly with anti-vaxers (aka “dangerous idiots”).

    Don’t even start me. But ya did. And this is where we are.
    angry in NYC

    1. The more I read Sullivan the more I don’t get why so many think he is a good read. He talks a lot and he writes fairly well but he strikes me as a bit of an idiot that makes up just so stories and passionately proclaims them with unwarranted assuredness.

  18. I am from the UK. The mask debate here has not been politicised (at least not much); there are no equivalent of Red states not mandating them and Blue states mandating them. Instead, the UK has a country-wide policy of mask use inside shops and public transport, but not offices or homes. From this distance, I worry that the effectiveness of masks is either weak or nil and that the US scientific community have let the politics of the situation bias them. The CDC published what seemed cherry picked and weak evidence that masks work (mostly theoretical and lab based) and ignore multiple real world empirical studies that show no statistical evidence of their effectiveness. So for me the conclusion by Andrew Sullivan is erroneous: why equate something that has a lot of evidence that it is effective with something with very little evidence it is effective?

    1. I’m from the UK and I’m also not completely convinced by the evidence for effectiveness of masks. Masks weren’t made mandatory here until after we came out of our first lock down. However, it isn’t much of an inconvenience to me to wear a mask so I don’t object and I’m obedient and they might help.

      1. I suspect masks help, but I do agree with this attitude. It is not much of an inconvenience so we might as well wear them. Since we’re sure that transmission through the air is how the virus is spread, surely masks help. I also think masks remind people that we’re in a pandemic and to behave accordingly. People that care anyway.

  19. In his view, mask-wearing around similarly vaccinated people is now optional.

    Hmmm, I thought this was the view of HHS and CDC too. I.e. when you’re in a private gathering where everyone is vaccinated, you don’t need to wear masks because the risk is so low. So I seed no problem with Sullivan’s position for the simple reason that it seems to me he’s simply agreeing with our health experts (about Covid – I have no opinion on the AIDS position).

    This has nothing to do with going out in public however. Everyone should still be wearing masks for that because you have no way of knowing who around you is vaccinated and no way of knowing who around you may be high risk. IMO the government should continue to push public mask wearing until we’ve reached herd immunity…and since nobody knows exactly what that percent vaccinated is, that means until 80-95% of the population has been vaccinated AND we see the nation-wide steep drop in new cases that is expected to accompany herd immunity. IOW until we have epidemiological evidence that we have, in fact, reached that point.

      1. I think Adam M’s original post has been removed (or maybe still being moderated). I got an email alert about it and thought I’d offer my thoughts (broadly that I agree with him).

  20. I was more than surprised to read an article by Charles Schmidt in MIT Technology Review (18 March 2021) where he poses questions about the possible origins of SARS-CoV2.

    Surprised, because from what I had previously read, was similar to your opinion that a non-natural origin was simply not credible. But also surprised that a publication with the standing of MIT would indulge in such flights of fancy.

    Now, I am unable to judge MIT Tech Review’s creds, except that on face value I would have expected it to be beyond reproach.

    From its website

    MIT Technology Review derives its authority from its relationship to the world’s foremost technology institution and from its editors’ deep technical knowledge, capacity to see technologies in their broadest context, and unequaled access to leading innovators and researchers.

    I would like to hear opinions about MIT Tech Review’s credentials. (I am not a subscriber but get 3 free articles per month).

    Schmidt quotes two scientists who have raised the possibility that the virus may have “leaked from a lab” as he terms it.

    Firstly, Nikolai Petrovksy, a professor at Flinders University, near Adelaide, Australia, “considered whether SARS-CoV-2 might have emerged in lab cultures with human cells, or cells engineered to express the human ACE2 protein”

    Second, he references David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, [who] says a lab leak was never the subject of a “fair and dispassionate discussion of the facts as we know them.”

    I am not sure what to make of this?

  21. I get it, comparing condoms to wearing masks. Its almost the exact same, but I think with aids people take that more seriously and wear condoms vs people who are protecting from covid, people aren’t even taking that virus seriously, so they don’t wear masks, while if there’s a person who has aids, if he knows hell be wearing a condom (hopefully) but there’s a chance someone will know they have aids and still wont wear a condom. Don’t get me started on the people who don’t know they are sick. People are ridiculous sometimes, especially with being so hard headed makes it unsafe for so many people.

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