As coronavirus surges in Republican territory, so does rage over masks

Health officials recommend mask wearing to prevent coronavirus spread, but many politicians decry limiting rights of individuals.

SHARE As coronavirus surges in Republican territory, so does rage over masks

Guests required to wear masks because of the coronavirus pandemic stroll through the Disney Springs shopping, dining and entertainment complex Tuesday, June 16, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

John Raoux/AP

After waiting hours for his turn to speak to the Montgomery City Council on June 16, pulmonologist Dr. William Saliski spoke slowly and in basic terms about what he had seen on the novel coronavirus front lines in his hospital in an area hit harder than any other in Alabama. 

He described emergency units overrun with COVID-19 patients, roughly 90-percent of whom were Black, and warned that if the spread continued, “we will be overrun.” 

He offered a simple partial solution: the council should pass the ordinance it was considering to require people to wear masks in public.

“This mask slows that down,” Saliski said while waving a piece of fabric. “Ninety-five percent protection. Something as easy as this cloth.” 

But the doctor was met with skepticism, including from a councilman who suggested that to order Montgomery residents to wear masks would be to “throw our constitutional rights out the window.” 

Saliski and other doctors stormed out of the meeting in disgust after the council members voted mostly along racial lines—Black members for the mandate and white members against it—and the ordinance failed.

Such combative scenes have increasingly become the norm in parts of the United Statesespecially as the virus has taken hold in more conservative regions in the South and West. Face masks or coverings of the sort recommended by top health officials to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus have become an unlikely focus of partisanship and racial division, leading to mass refusals to wear them or mandate their use even as government leaders have pushed to reopen the economy. 

Local officials voting to require face masks in public have faced lawsuits and have been shouted down by their constituents. Law enforcement leaders have refused to enforce face mask mandates. There have been mask burnings and protests, including one demonstration in which an Arizona council member mimicked victims of police abuse by declaring: “I can’t breathe.”

And as some right-leaning Americans have called masks a tool of oppression, Democratic conspiracy, and even sacrilege, a new genre of viral cell phone video has popped up, featuring verbal or physical scuffles centering on people refusing to cover their faces in CostcoTrader Joe’s, or other public places. Shoppers irate about masks have vandalized a store display and spat on a 7-11 counter upon being asked to put on one, and one man pulled a gun because a fellow shopper refused to wear one. 

For public health experts, the fissure over masks is yet another unwelcome headache in a battle against the novel coronavirus. With more than 3 million confirmed cases of the virus and upwards of 134,000 deaths, the United States has been by far the world’s hardest-hit nation.

“If we’re going to move on we’ve got to get everybody on the same page,” said Dr. Glen Nowak, a University of Georgia professor who previously ran media relations and communications at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ”Because if we don’t, we’re going to be dealing with this divisiveness for a long time.”

According to Dr. Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago in New Zealand, many western nations that do not have a history of mask-wearing during virus outbreaks have experienced some doubt about the practice’s efficacy.

But Baker said that no other country’s citizens have taken such a willful stance against masks, and that international health officials have been particularly stunned that American leaders at the highest levels have done relatively little to urge mask-wearing, and at times have even seemed to belittle it.

“This idea that you’re going to make a political statement by infecting people around you just seems absolutely outrageous to me and I think to most people who think about it,” Baker said. “Why would you do that? Why would you encourage that behavior?”

Baker said the dissent against masks has coupled dangerously with the American rush to reopen businesses even as infection cases reach record levels.

“Not endorsing mask use and also encouraging the country to get back to work just seems like a terrible contradiction because, actually, mass masking would be one of the best tools for helping a country get back to work and it’s cheap and effective,” Baker said. “You’re just creating this perfect storm for yourselves in the U.S. by doing that.”

Nowak said that American distrust of masks was partly the fault of poor messaging by his former agency, the CDC. The agency initially discouraged healthy Americans from wearing masks, in part to prevent hoarding that could’ve deprived medical professionals of personal protective equipment.

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