Who was that masked man? By Ken Adams, CDC Gaming Reports February 13, 2022 at 8:00 pm On Thursday February 10, Steve Sisolak, governor of Nevada, held a press conference to announce the end of the universal mask mandate in Nevada, effective immediately, minus exceptions in healthcare facilities, at airports, and on public transportation. “I’m hopeful that we’re in a good position to drop this, to give people back some freedom,” Sisolak said. “Everyone wants to get back to their normal life, whatever normal is. It’s been two years.” Sisolak joined 10 other states in announcing an end to mask mandates before March 1. Over the last two months, the number of average new cases of the omicron variety of COVID-19 per day nationally grew from approximately 100,000 to over 900,000; the number of new cases peaked in mid-January. Since then, cases have slowly declined to just over 200,000 when Sisolak made his announcement and just over 100,000 on February 12. When ending the restrictions, the governor cited the decrease in cases, the increase in vaccinations, and the availability of home tests. Those factors certainly played into the decisions to end mask mandates. But so did the truckers in Canada, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. The truckers called themselves a freedom convoy. They demanded an end to COVID restrictions and a return to personal freedom and choice when it comes to masks, vaccinations, and testing. Those demonstrations obviously resonated with Sisolak. He used that exact phrase: giving people back some freedom. He also said it has been two years and we are weary of restricted living and fear. Shortly after Sisolak’s statement, the Nevada Gaming Control Board issued new guidelines, withdrawing the requirement for masking in in casinos. Steve Thayer, general manager of The STRAT in Las Vegas, said, “It’s really an exciting day. It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since we started this process.” But it has, Steve; it has been exactly two years since casinos in Macau closed due to COVID-19. Casinos in the United States, including Nevada, started closing in March 2020. Although many reopened by the end of that year, not all did. And those that reopened were operating under heavy restrictions, including limited capacity, social distancing, limited or no food, beverage, and entertainment outlets, and mask requirements. The end of mask mandates for the most part was met with statements like Thayer’s. But not always. Students at the University of Nevada in Reno are petitioning for a return of mandates. Other pockets of occupations and interests are not overjoyed with the end of masking. And the end of what is by this time a two-year-old habit is not coming so easily to some. The day after the governor’s press conference, I went to two retail stores, a shoe store and my local grocery. In the shoe store, I was the only one masked. However, in the grocery, I estimated that 40-50 percent of the shoppers were also masked and practicing social distancing, the two behaviors that I associate with shopping. Both have become ingrained; like a blanket and a cup of warm tea, they make me feel comfortable and safe. The aforementioned governor and general manager both made reference to returning to normalcy. Returning to that time before the pandemic, when we felt safe in public, is the dream of the freedom truckers, workers in every occupation, business owners, and nearly every other person. But when faced with the opportunity to take that first step, it is not so easy to do. Yes, I do intend to give up my mask and distancing. I am just not sure when that time will come. And it is not just me. The return to normalcy is not an event, it is a process. In some cases, it might not be possible. Normalcy has become an almost mystical and imaginary time, the ”before time,” a time of innocence, trust and optimism. Regaining your innocence seldom happens. Once you have seen the evil, felt the pain and fear, those memories remain. They cannot be unremembered. We cannot forget the pandemic. We cannot forget our knowledge that a plague is possible. At any time, a disease can escape into the world suddenly and sweep across the globe, infecting hundreds of millions of people. Think of the people living after the Black Death stalked through human civilization. Think of the survivors of the First World War and the Jews, Roma, and others who escaped the Nazi death camps. They have gone on to live full and even happy lives, but never could they have forgotten that a terrible and cruel fate might find them any day. The COVID pandemic does not rise to the level of horror of those events. Its impact is not as severe or long-lasting. Still, its shadow will not leave us completely for a long time. In time, I will learn to shop without precautions and without fear and distrust of my fellow shoppers. But for the rest of my life, I will still be looking over my shoulder for that mysterious, dark, and dangerous masked man that I glimpsed in 2020 and 2021. And yet, it is time to get on with normal life and back into sharing the world with others.