Bitsy Cherry had been bracing for the question ever since most of the members of a board game group that had started meeting online during the pandemic began attending in-person meetings a few months ago.
Like many of the dwindling group of Americans still taking precautions like masking indoors and limiting face-to-face interactions, Mx. Cherry, who uses gender-neutral courtesy titles and pronouns, had been fielding nudges to return to pre-Covid routines from all corners. Doctors’ offices that have dropped mask protocols encouraged Mx. Cherry to come in for a physical exam. Friends suggested repeatedly that gathering on the porch might be safe enough. And there was President Biden, who in remarks on CBS’s “60 Minutes” had declared the pandemic “over.”
But when the board-game organizer finally asked this month if Mx. Cherry was ready to go back to gathering on the Cornell University campus, Mx. Cherry fumbled for an answer. The online gaming group on Saturday afternoons had become a key social outlet for Mx. Cherry, who has remained largely confined at home with Nathanael Nerode, Mx. Cherry’s partner, since March 2020 because of an autoimmune disorder that raises the risk of a severe outcome from Covid.
“I found that one upsetting,’’ Mx. Cherry said in an interview. “I’ve been worried in the back of my mind the whole time: When are they going to decide they don’t want to do this anymore?’’
For many Americans still at pains to avoid infection with the coronavirus, this has become the loneliest moment since the pandemic began.
Exercise classes have largely suspended remote workouts. Families and employers have expected attendance at holiday events. The vulnerable and the risk-averse are finding themselves the rare mask-wearers on public transportation, in places of worship, and at offices and stores.
Even as Covid cases and hospitalizations have climbed across the nation over the last month, public officials are avoiding mask mandates — though officials in some cities, including New York and Los Angeles, have recently recommended wearing masks in public places, citing a “tripledemic” that includes influenza and R.S.V., or respiratory syncytial virus.
It is hard to avoid the feeling of being judged as histrionic, some say, even when evidence suggests they are right to be cautious. And many say they face pressure, internal and external, to adjust to changing social norms around a virus that others are treating as a thing of the past.
“I feel now that I’m getting stares wearing the mask, and I’m not a paranoid person,’’ said Andrew Gold, 66, who was recently the only guest masking at a small housewarming party in his Upper West Side neighborhood in Manhattan. “The vibe I’m getting is: ‘Is this really necessary?’’’
More than 90 percent of Americans said they wore masks at least some of the time in December 2020, and 69 percent did so in December 2021, according to polls by Ipsos, a research firm. That number has this month dropped to 30 percent, with only 10 percent saying that they use masks at all times outside of their home.
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The decline in mask wearing occurred after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its mask recommendations this spring. The virologist Trevor Bedford, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute in Seattle, has estimated that the risk of Covid is similar to that of the flu, with one death in 2,000 infections, about one tenth of what it was originally, with one death in 200 infections.
But data from England, and the decrease in publicly reported P.C.R. tests, suggests there is likely a tenfold increase in unreported Covid cases compared with a year ago, Dr. Bedford said. Because there are more Covid infections than flu infections each year, more Americans are likely to die from Covid even if the death rate is similar. Moreover, Dr. Bedford wrote on Twitter that the risk of long Covid, a constellation of symptoms that can plague people for months, places the “health burden of Covid substantially higher than influenza.’’
The risks fall most heavily on those who are immune-compromised, over age 65, or lack the resources to treat infections or take time off work. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll this month found that Americans making less than $40,000 per year were on average much more likely to express worries about getting seriously ill from Covid than those with higher incomes.
Hospitalizations have begun to level off recently, but cases are rising in some states, and the Northeast remains a troubling hot spot. Experts fear that holiday gatherings and lagging vaccination rates could lead to an increase in hospitalizations and cases in January. Covid-19 is still the nation’s third leading cause of death, killing about 400 people a day.
But avoiding infection comes with new trade-offs.
Alice Barton, 69, a retired doctor in Austin, Texas, who has severe asthma, for instance, has become accustomed to being the only person wearing a mask, even in doctors’ offices. And she has resisted entreaties by members of her prepandemic yoga class to return.
“People are constantly commenting about how I must just be scared, there must be something the matter with me,” Dr. Barton said. “It’s the most isolated I’ve ever been.”
Jennifer Rutherford, a clerical worker in Davis, Calif., has come to take it as a sign of subtle pressure when people tell her it is hard to hear her through her mask. Sometimes, she obliges by taking it off. But she remains the only member of her musical theater group to mask during rehearsals, because of her concerns about long Covid.
“Most people seem to be fine,’’ Ms. Rutherford said. “But then someone will say, ‘My lungs haven’t recovered.’ ‘I still have heart palpitations.’ ‘I’m really weak.’ I have no reason to believe I’m not going to be one of those people.’’
Public health experts emphasize the need for staying current with booster shots. But while many recommend masks indoors, they also say individual risk calculations should take into account that the virus is almost certainly here to stay and people need to ask: Do I want to mask, perhaps, for decades?
“It’s absolutely reasonable that people would differ in terms of what risks they think is worth it,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the pandemic center at Brown University School of Public Health.
On social media, many of the Covid risk-averse have reported entreaties to attend holiday gatherings they fear would expose them to unacceptable health risks. Many declined to speak on the record, for fear of reprisal or ridicule from employers or social groups. Others say the shift in attitudes has sometimes made them question themselves.
“I feel like there’s been a reordering of the risk universe,’’ said Tanya Keith, 51, of Des Moines, a member of the Facebook group for parents still taking Covid precautions called “Still COVIDing: Parents Edition.” “Now it’s like, I’m one of the crazy people.”
Ms. Keith avoids restaurants and always wears a mask indoors. Her children mask at school. She has no health conditions that would put her at higher Covid risk, but she has had Covid once, and has no time to be sick, she said.
The hardest part, Ms. Keith said, has been feeling out of step with the circle of liberal-leaning friends who once shared her own family’s Covid-safety protocols. Now, some of the people with whom she had commiserated over an Iowa law that prohibited schools from requiring masks are no longer routinely wearing masks themselves.
At a synagogue where masks were once required, Ms. Keith found herself and her family almost alone in wearing them for her daughter’s consecration ceremony. And though she allowed herself to be coaxed by a friend into going to a bar to watch a World Cup game, a social activity she especially missed this year, she said she felt incapable of enjoying the usual soccer camaraderie.
“I just felt like, ‘What are we doing here? Nothing has changed. Covid is still not ‘just a cold,’’’ Ms. Keith said.
For people like the friend, Steve Wilke-Shapiro, navigating the resistance of people with whom they were once in lock step is also a new challenge. Mr. Wilke-Shapiro, an architect, said he had become resigned to getting Covid, and that with vaccinations and booster shots, he would “do what I can to avoid it and still for the most part do the things I enjoy doing.’’
“I told her it would be fun, there would be people there she hadn’t seen in a while,’’ he recalled. But when she declined to return for the next game, he did not push back. “I try to read the room,’’ he said.
Sometimes family members and friends can get a little exasperated by the hyper concern. Rafael Oro, 64, a business analyst in Union, N.J., said he has chafed at his wife’s continuing caution. While he is ready to return to prepandemic routines, “we have yet to see a play,” he noted.
“If you have an underlying condition, of course, put it on,’’ Mr. Oro said. “But if you’re vaccinated, you’re boosted, are you really still afraid?’’
For Nathanael Nerode, 46, the partner of Mx. Cherry, the imperative now is to educate others about the risks that remain. When friends say they are not worried about Covid because they have already had it, Mx. Nerode, who also uses gender-neutral courtesy titles and pronouns, sends them a link to academic papers that suggest reinfection is relatively common and each infection adds to the risk of severe outcomes. When friends say they do not mind if they get Covid because it will be only a cold, Mx. Nerode sends a paper suggesting that even mild cases can result in cognitive impairment.
“I’m fairly blunt,’’ said Mx. Nerode, who is also a member of Mx. Cherry’s game group. “So when somebody’s like, ‘Oh, I’m inviting you to this event,’ my response is, ‘You’re crazy. That event is dangerous. Don’t come crying to me when you get sick.’”
That does not mean life has to shut down, the couple said. If everyone at the board game group would commit to wearing well-fitting, high-quality masks — they prefer elastomeric p100s — and the group invested in a HEPA filter, Mx. Cherry says the couple could safely attend. Mx. Nerode’s 90-year-old father, for instance, a math professor at Cornell, has taught all semester with the same equipment.
At the same time, Mx. Cherry worried that the other members of the game group would continue to meet online solely out of a sense of obligation.
“I didn’t want them to do that,’’ Mx. Cherry recalled.
But when the couple explained at the recent online meeting that neither of them felt comfortable meeting in person under the current conditions, the three other members did not press further for in-person sessions.
Instead, at the end of the afternoon session, they gave their usual sign-off.
“They said, ‘See you next Saturday,’ Mx. Cherry recalled. “So it seems like we will keep playing.’’
Neelam Bohra contributed reporting and Kitty Bennett contributed research.