Eagle County has lifted its mask order, but it can feel a little weird to go without one
‘Anything that we can hold on to that gives us comfort and security is difficult to let go’
After a year of sometimes struggling to take a deep breath and dealing with perpetually fogged glasses, the announcement that Eagle County was lifting its COVID-19 public health order concerning mask mandates on Wednesday came as welcome news.
So why does going maskless feel a little weird for some people and induce actual anxiety for others?
“I think the biggest part is all of us are creatures of habit,” said Casey Wolfington, the community behavioral health director for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. “A year ago the transition to masks was so difficult, but it became our new normal.”
For people who were concerned about contracting COVID-19, wearing a mask was a proactive step. Knowing the disease is still out there, Wolfington said some folks simply feel safer continuing to wear one.
“Anything that we can hold on to that gives us comfort and security is difficult to let go,” she said.
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That’s especially true because the new tool for COVID-19 protection — vaccination — can’t be seen.
“I think our community is tremendously safer than it was before,” Wolfington said. “But it is difficult to assess risk and safety when you don’t have visual cues around you. People don’t wear vaccination cards.”
For that reason, Wolfington said some people will continue to wear masks voluntarily and some businesses are directing staff to continue the practice.
“There will be people who will transition more slowly. Everyone’s level of comfort is different and everyone’s medical history is different,” Wolfington said. “Just because you are in a place of safety, it doesn’t mean the person next to you is.”
For people who aren’t ready to give up their masks, Wolfington advised starting small. Go maskless in environments that feel safer as a transitional step, she advised. And, she stressed, don’t beat yourself up for feeling anxious.
“What you are feeling is completely normal. Making changes is hard,” Wolfington said.
She also advised talking about the experience. Chances are, other people are feeling the same way.
“You can still have personal boundaries unrelated to public health orders,” Wolfington said. “But if you are living in a state of constant fear, maybe this is impacting you in a way that behavioral health professionals can help.”
Wolfington said as the COVID-19 rules change, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health is seeing an increase in the number of people reaching out for help.
“We are hearing that people thought their issue was about COVID-19 but they are still struggling,” she said. “COVID-19 affected every sphere of our lives so people who were feeling anxious or depressed thought it was because of that. But maybe, it was because of other issues.”
Emerging from trauma — because the COVID-19 pandemic is a global traumatic experience — can be tough, Wolfington said.
“Outside of the trauma, we have a lot more things to think about. In a way, being in a trauma can be a lot more simple. Your focus is narrowed,” she said.
What about the kiddos?
While adults in the community are shedding masks, kids are still required to wear them at school. That’s a tough communication message for parents, Wolfington said.
She suggested explaining to children that masks are their tool for combating COVID-19. In contrast, vaccination is the tool for adults, and in Eagle County 88% of the population age 40 and older has received at lease one dose of vaccine.
It’s also important to reinforce the idea that COVID-19 is still a threat. “We are not saying there is no risk. There are still things that we all should do to protect ourselves,” Wolfington said.
Take what’s good
COVID-19 precautions — masks, social distancing, sanitizing surfaces — have been uncomfortable and have prompted political division. But there have been benefits beyond addressing the pandemic, Wolfington said.
“My 3-year-old and my 6 year-old had zero illnesses this year. There are some tools I have used in the past 14 months that I am going to try to keep in my life,” she said. “I am hoping that people can take what they want and keep what they want.”
Wolfington also hopes emerging from COVID-19 restrictions is a community-building experience. That means supporting people who are ready to rid themselves of masks and supporting people who aren’t there yet, she said.
“We, as a community, are going to set the norm for how we handle things. Hopefully we can set it in a kind manner,” Wolfington said.