Mild confusion, panic and the joy of having a choice: How it felt going mask-free outdoors
SINGAPORE: I jumped out of bed with a pep in my step, eager to leave the house and see a brave new world.
Today was the first day that relaxed COVID-19 rules kicked in, including not having to wear a mask outdoors – a change I embraced with open arms.
I’d long loathed the discomfort of sweating under a mask, especially so during long outdoor assignments in our stifling tropical heat.
There was a tiny excitement in me as I left the house for breakfast at a nearby hawker centre, sans mask.
How liberating to feel the sunshine on the lower half of my face, with the vindication of knowing it was allowed. And I was not even vigorously exercising!
But soon, that sentiment turned to slight sheepishness and bewilderment as I realised: “Was I really the only one not wearing my mask?”
At every turn, nearly everyone around me – elderly, young families, some on their way to work – still had their masks on.
It seemed the sentiments pooled by an informal CNA poll last week, in which more than 75 per cent of respondents said they would keep their masks on, weren’t far off the mark.
INDOORS VS OUTDOORS
At an open-air hawker centre, I masked up to enter. Shortly after, I removed it to have a plate of toast at a table near the entrance.
When I was ready to leave, I was faced with my first dilemma of the day.
I was less than 10 seconds away from the exit.
Should I put on my mask – just to remove it again once I step out from the hawker centre (“indoors”) into the “outdoors”?
I decided not to mask up for the treacherous six-second journey, but I made sure to take a long, conspicuous sip of my teh bing siu dai as a shield from potential scorn.
Later, I headed to the MRT station, unmasked. Before entering though, I had to put down my laptop, bag, and drink, to rummage through my bag for the mask.
“Maybe ... I should have just kept it on,” I thought.
"WHERE'S MY MASK?!"
Exiting One North MRT station, I peeled off my mask again.
Ah, I couldn’t remember the last time I made the long walk from the station to the Mediacorp building without upper lip sweat beading under my face covering.
It wasn't crowded, but there still weren’t many kindred souls (unmasked people) around.
The sun was blazing on this particular morning and I was so glad to be mask-free. The caress of a slight breeze against my face was a delight.
As my mind wandered off, however, I was struck by a sudden flash of panic: “Where’s my mask?!”
Then I remembered: "It was fine. I won't be getting in trouble with vigilantes looking for the next person breaking the mask-on rule."
This muscle memory was going to take a while to readjust.
Later, when my colleague and I headed out for lunch in the sweltering noon heat, we were still one of the rare few unmasked.
The food court we went to brimmed with crowds, likely owing to the return of more workers to the office.
As I headed home later, I savoured the evening breeze on my walk back to the MRT station.
THE JOY OF HAVING A CHOICE
I fully understand other people's decisions to remain masked outdoors – be it for convenience or safety.
There are still thousands of infections a day, and people have different, valid, concerns about the virus and their own susceptibility towards COVID-19.
Like others I spoke to before the rules kicked in, I was also not totally throwing caution to the wind with the relaxed rules.
Each time I unmasked outdoors today, there were hardly any other people around me. But if I were at a crowded bus stop during peak hour, I’d probably think twice about removing it.
As some have expressed, I too found the rules about indoors and outdoors slightly arbitrary to navigate. Being unmasked would also take some getting used to.
But for all the mild confusion, flashes of panic, and slight discomfort of being the odd one out, the joy of some freedom – of having at least the option to be mask-free – was worth it.
For many, it was the fruition of months of wishing for a return to some normalcy. It was a feeling that we’ve begun moving on from this stage of the pandemic. And for today, it was a feeling I relished.