"The science says ..." has become a national refrain that anyone can repeat to thwart, immediately and permanently, any criticism that might be coming their way.

For years we’ve been told to "listen to the science" on climate change. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, we’ve been told to "listen to the science" on how the virus spreads and what steps we should take to combat it.

This has led to some common-sense lifestyle changes: wear a mask indoors, let workers who can work remotely do so, etc. It has also led to some silly rules: restaurants barred from selling alcohol after 10 p.m. (because that’s when COVID-19 emerges for its nocturnal mischief!), national parks closed (so people can stay cooped up indoors for the good of their health), and outdoor mask mandates.

Even when we knew little about the virus, it was pretty obvious that passing someone on the sidewalk or relaxing, socially distanced, in the same park as your neighbor wasn’t going to contribute significantly to community spread. Yet that didn’t stop cities from implementing outdoor mask mandates — or stop citizens from taking these mandates extremely seriously.

Washington has had an outdoor mask mandate in place for nearly a year now, and while it makes an exception for "vigorous outdoor exercise" and "maintaining social distance of at least six feet from other people," you wouldn’t be able to tell by walking down the street.

As a D.C. resident, I have seen countless bikers in masks as well as clusters of Lululemon-wearing yoga observers, six feet apart in a park and fully masked. Runners wear masks, gaggles of friends in parks wear masks. You will likely get dirty looks if you step outside of your apartment, even for a moment, for an unmasked breath of fresh air.

For people in D.C. and other metro areas across the U.S., outdoor mask-wearing isn’t about following the science. It’s a lifestyle, and it’s about signaling to others that they’re taking this pandemic seriously.

But it’s not 2020 anymore. More than half of Americans are at least partially vaccinated. The economy is opening back up. The only signaling we should be doing now is signaling that we’re actually following the science, not following overzealous efforts to indicate our superiority.

Last week, Slate ran an article concluding that "it’s about time for us to stop wearing masks outside." In the article, an infectious diseases physician explains how unlikely it is to get COVID-19 from passing someone on the street:

“First, you or the person you’re passing would have to happen to have an asymptomatic infection, he explained, and then everyone would have to be exhaling and inhaling at just the right moment, and also, exchanging enough particles to actually seed another infection: 'You’re talking about a probability of getting hit by a car, and being struck by lightning.'”

As a New York Times article notes, the Slate piece was endorsed by the blog of The New England Journal of Medicine, the premier peer-reviewed journal for medical research. Readers, however, were not so happy with the science.

These are the type of people who are less interested in following the science than they are interested in keeping us trapped in our pandemic mindset forever.

In fairness, it’s no wonder the extreme pro-maskers are so paranoid. Government officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci are still preaching a doom-and-gloom message about the pandemic, even as vaccination rates rise and coronavirus cases fall. What we need from our leaders, including President Joe Biden and his administration, is less of a focus on signaling and more of a focus on the science.

We know now that the early pandemic hygiene theater did little to nothing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The risk of contracting the virus from a contaminated surface is tiny, with "less than a 1 in 10,000 chance of causing an infection," says the CDC.

If we can all agree that wiping down our groceries was ridiculous, and likely contributed more to fear and anxiety than to anyone’s health, then we can certainly agree that it’s time to stop acting like we need to wear masks outside. It may make you feel better about yourself, but all it does is contribute to an outdated and irrational fear.