To Mask or Not to Mask at High Holiday Services?

More and more community members are looking forward to attending in-person High Holiday services this September – mask-free. Synagogues have relaxed masking policies and many people have relaxed their mask-wearing practices in public indoor spaces.

Some people, according to Rob Stein, Correspondent and Senior Editor of NPR's Science Desk, are not ready to stop masking. He says, "it can be tough to go against the grain."

In a recent piece, Stein explains:


As many people return to more pre-pandemic behaviors, this can feel like an especially perilous moment for older people, those with weak immune systems and other health problems that make the virus especially dangerous. Many feel left behind and angry.

It can be tricky to adjust, experts agree, and hard to deal with the social pressure to shrug off COVID worries. Their advice is that it's OK to hold on to your own sense of what's safe and take your time coming out of the bunker.

"There's no bright line that separates safe and not safe," says Dr. Robert Wachter, who chairs the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

"We have to be sort of forgiving of ourselves and our our neighbors," says Wachter. "Our brains have all been pickled by anxiety for two years. You can't snap your fingers and say, 'Don't worry about it all.' In part because it's hard for the brain to make that kind of pivot and in part because the risk is low — but it's not zero, it's just low."

William Stover, LCSW, Associate Executive Director/Clinical Director at Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County, adds, "Feelings of stress come from trying to control things we cannot control. So we cannot control the attitudes of others or the behaviors of others. Therefore our first responsibility is to help ourselves feel most comfortable. If you feel most comfortable wearing a mask in a group setting, I would urge that you wear it. Understand that others may not agree, but you are only responsible for you, not their feelings or opinions. You may feel anxious, but measure whether you would feel more anxious if you didn't wear the mask."

According to a different piece by reporter/editor Will Stone, who covers health for NPR and Kaiser Health News, some researchers have tried to specifically quantify the risk of being infected when one person is wearing a mask and the other isn't — i.e., one-way masking. 


One recent modeling study found a 90% risk of being infected after 30 minutes when a person wears a surgical mask and is about 5 feet away from an infected unmasked person. Switching to a respirator [such as an N95, KN95 or KF94] drops that risk to 20% over the course of an hour. And if both people are wearing a respirator, it's under 1% in an hour. Of course, all these estimates are based on certain assumptions and can't be taken as a strict guide." 

What to do about that awkward feeling

The decision to be a one-way masker can add to your pandemic stress. It can be awkward to be the only person in a public place who's wearing one. 

Wendy Zagha, LCSW, Director of Clinical Services, Child & Adolescent Specialist with Jewish Family & Children's Service of Monmouth County, adds, "The Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur services are the largest attended services in synagogue all year. Not wearing a mask indoors with many attendees can heighten COVID anxiety, but unfortunately, mask wearing has almost become a political statement. Each person must assess their own risk and go with what makes them feel comfortable, even though they may feel peer pressure or uncomfortable in a public setting." 

Epidemiology professor Charlotte Baker at Virginia Tech, recognizes that it can be a lonely road. She suggests giving yourself a little pep talk to strengthen your resolve and don't obsess about the non-maskers around you. 

For help coping with this or other stress, mental health counseling is available through Jewish Family Services of Middlesex County [732-777-1940] and Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Monmouth County [732-774-6886].


Add Comment
Subscribe to posts