Regular readers know I recently enjoyed a family road trip to New Mexico, and what did we do there to celebrate our newfound freedom and respite from a long season of pandemic sheltering? Why, we went to the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe to see the current exhibition on pandemic masks.

#mask: Creative Responses to the Global Pandemic is a remarkable demonstration of how the state’s artists, many of them Indigenous New Mexicans, have used art to explore history, public health equity, and politics, and to encourage individual mask use as a demonstration of “humanity’s hope and care for one another.”

The exhibition reminds us that the first pandemic masks emerged in the mid-14th century with face coverings featuring elaborate, birdlike beaks that could be filled with herbs and greens thought to keep out the bubonic plague ravaging Europe. There are some great inspirations on exhibit for Día de los Muertos and Halloween if you happen to visit. The exhibit will be open until early 2023.

We were maskless the day my family, all of us fully vaccinated, toured the museum and its far-ranging collection of folk art. Alas, we are maskless no more. The latest guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for vaccinated people to wear masks in indoor public places where the coronavirus, especially the highly contagious delta variant, is spreading at “substantial” or “high” levels. Local officials agree we are again in a state of emergency.

So long as unvaccinated people behave as if they are somehow safe from infection or spreading it, we should err on the side of caution. That means taking an unwanted step back and agreeing to mask up once again. This pandemic, public health officials have been telling us all along, is not over.

I unmask if I am in a reasonably uncrowded indoor space, like the San Antonio Report offices, with people who are vaccinated, but otherwise I am masking up. Of course, even that might have to change if the variant continues to spread unchecked.

You should mask up in public indoor spaces or crowded outdoor spaces, too. Not because I am telling you to do so, or lecturing here. You should do it for yourself, your spouse, your children, your elders, your co-workers. If ever we needed a Love Thy Neighbor moment, it is now.

If enough of the unvaccinated population can be reasoned with and persuaded to reassess their vaccine hesitancy, their fears of unintended side effects, or their misguided political convictions, we can deal more quickly with this spike than past ones. If we fail to convince the minority to join the majority of protected San Antonians and Texans, we are in for troubled times that inevitably will interfere with social and economic recovery.

Gov. Greg Abbott, why not underscore the import of mask use and restore an emergency order requiring public indoor mask use? Personal responsibility is a noble thought, but 40% of the adult population is not listening.

The moment is key. Starting this month, hundreds of thousands of Bexar County students will return to school, and with the tens of thousands of adult educators. Many of those students are under 12 and not yet eligible for the vaccine. They are vulnerable, and they also are capable of spreading the virus. Yet Abbott has prohibited Texas schools from requiring masks. I don’t get it.

Bexar County hospitals and intensive care units have filled up, yet again, with COVID-19 victims who are unvaccinated and now intensifying a public health crisis. Public health workers yet again are being asked to save the lives of people who acted selfishly and ignored the pandemic as not their problem.

Fiscal conservatives should note that the cost to taxpayers of the average hospitalized COVID-19 patient who is uninsured is $34,000 to $45,000, with out-of-network charges reaching as high as $73,000. That says nothing about the multitrillion-dollar government spending necessitated by the pandemic and economic shutdown.

Mask use, by comparison, seems like an affordable path back to pandemic recovery.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.