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Opinion: Let Us Now Praise Masks

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When news flashed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fully vaccinated Americans can now safely go without masks, outdoors and in, my eyes fell on the pile in a corner of our apartment.

We have masks with logos and slogans, solid, striped and floral-patterned masks. We have enough Chicago Cubs masks to outfit the team, and a St. Louis Cardinals mask sent by a friend who said, "Cubs masks make errors."

We have masks with the flag of France and the city seal of Chicago, masks from local politicians, and, of course, public radio stations.

There are many cautions attached to the new CDC guidelines. Masks should still be worn while traveling, in hospitals and doctors' offices, and in crowds. And, of course, masks should still be worn by, and around, those who are not fully vaccinated — which is still more than 60% of the country. Some states and cities say they aren't yet ready to roll back mask requirements.

Still, when President Biden and Vice President Harris, who have made a point of wearing masks in public, came to the White House Rose Garden with uncovered faces, it felt like a moment to mark. The vice president called out to the president, "You've got a great smile."

Masks may become not just artifacts to tell future schoolchildren about the Great Pandemic, but also intermittent features of American life. Dr. Anthony Fauci told Meet the Press this week that "during certain seasonal periods when you have respiratory-borne viruses like the flu, people might actually elect to wear masks."

One day we may be ready to put our masks into sealed boxes, along with sad memories. Almost 600,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, nearly 33 million have been infected, and the toll of death and economic suffering has fallen hardest on the most vulnerable. There is no "but" to diminish that pain.

Hospital and health care workers, and those who work to feed and care for America, have put on masks every day to keep this country going, as safely as they could, while vaccines were developed in record time. Masks have been shields, fashion statements and small billboards. They conceal smiles, muffle conversation and throw your own breath back into your face.

But masks have earned a place of honor. I have gone from feeling that I can't wait to toss them out to thinking that I want to keep a few handy.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.