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As I watched shoppers browse clothing racks at my local mall this holiday season, I noticed that only a few people wore masks. It was a stark contrast from the past few years, defined by blue hospital masks, six-foot social distancing and constant hand sanitation. Observing peoples’ abandonment of masks during one of the busiest times of the year left me wondering whether we are finally coming out of the pandemic era in 2023. 

Approximately three years since the pandemic began, there have been promising signs indicating the pandemic may be over. Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced that California’s COVID-19 state of emergency would end on February 28, 2023. In his statement, he indicated that California has “all the tools needed to continue fighting COVID-19”, citing the dramatic reduction in hospitalizations and deaths due to California’s vaccination and public health efforts, like vaccines, boosters, testing, indoor ventilation and masking as reasoning. With 74% of California’s population vaccinated and more readily available treatment, the pandemic’s conditions have improved since 2020.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also acknowledged that the U.S. is “in a much better place with regard to the fulminant stage of the pandemic” and is entering a “new phase” where serious illness is low, and the death toll is consistent. In addition, the idea of the pandemic being over has openly become accepted by the public, with people returning to “normal” life activities such as holiday parties, traveling and concerts that were canceled during the pandemic.

But with the recent surge of COVID-19, the flu, RSV and an uptick in hospitalization in Los Angeles County, residents were faced with the possibility of renewed indoor mask mandates last month. Although the new mask mandate was not imposed, LA County residents argued against indoor masking orders as “unnecessary” and “tyrannical.” Similarly, the Riverside Board of Supervisors released their county’s public health officer, Dr. Cameron Kaiser, in 2021 after residents blasted him for requiring stricter masking orders than the state’s pandemic mandates at the time despite Riverside County constantly having the highest number of cases in California. 

Given all we’ve been through, it’s no surprise that the stress, anxiety and isolation of the pandemic took its toll on people, especially Gen Z. A recent American Psychological Association study found that Gen Z students felt the stresses of the pandemic more acutely than any other age group. The pandemic was a traumatic event unlike any other we’ve lived through, so it’s understandable that we all want COVID-19 protocols to be over in 2023. Reinstating mask mandates can be perceived as a step backward, not forward, from the improvement and full reopening of society.

I would like to say this pandemic is finally over too. Going back to the beginning of 2020 isn’t something I would want either. However, it’s essential to be flexible and patient in this phase of the pandemic. While reinstating strict COVID-19 protocols is still unclear, we will never fully return to life before 2020, no matter how much we want to, because the pandemic has left its mark and is not going anywhere soon. 

If public health officials, including the UC, decide to return to masking mandates or required testing, it will be because it is necessary, and we must remember that. Listening to scientists and public health officials will move us forward to our “normal” lives—even if that means following COVID-19 mandates we thought we were in the past. The more flexible and patient we are in this process, the sooner we can move further into our post-pandemic era.