Masks have become a symbol of which “side” you’re on in the coronavirus debate in the United States and for some folks, whether you choose to wear one or not says a lot about you.
If you don’t wear a mask, you’re seen as a callous brute who doesn’t care whether you spread your germs and kill grandma. If you do wear a mask, you’re seen as a quivering sheep, someone who has been willingly muted by the government.
Rationally, we know there’s a lot more to it than that, however, rational thinking is rarely at the forefront when tempers are flaring. Whether or not you choose to wear a mask is an incredibly visible sign that many will read as an alliance to one “side” or the other. It’s becoming almost tribal. It’s like the Bloods and the Crips of suburbia getting ready to throw down at Trader Joe’s.
The Mask Wearers
There are a lot of folks who come down on the side of wearing a mask. Why? Most of them say it’s to protect others from them in case they’re unwittingly carrying and spreading the virus. Asymptomatic COVID is a mystery. Scientists have said anywhere between 5% and 80% of carriers are asymptomatic, which really tells us nothing except, maybe you are, maybe you aren’t.
The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University summed it up after assembling the data from 21 reports:
What did we learn (see the table for the analysis)
That between 5% and 80% of people testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 may be asymptomatic
That symptom-based screening will miss cases, perhaps a lot of them
That some asymptomatic cases will become symptomatic over the next week (sometimes known as “pre-symptomatics”)
That children and young adults can be asymptomatic
We also learnt that there is not a single reliable study to determine the number of asymptotics. It is likely we will only learn the true extent once population based antibody testing is undertaken. (source)
So with that in mind, the case for mask-wearing does carry some weight.
However, it also depends on what kind of mask you’re wearing whether or not the protection is present. Everyone knows that N95 and N99 masks are nearly impossible to find and most want to leave those for healthcare workers anyway. The data regarding the cloth masks that most people are wearing doesn’t really support their use. But again, we don’t have very much data, so it’s not a definitive answer. The Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy reports:
Limited, indirect evidence from lab studies suggests that homemade fabric masks may capture large respiratory droplets, but there is no evidence they impede the transmission of aerosols implicated in the spread of COVID-19, according to a paper published yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (source)
So while science does not dispute the wearing of cloth masks, science doesn’t back it up, either.
Those Who Won’t Wear Masks
On the other side of the debate we have those who refuse to wear masks. Some folks won’t do business in stores that require them. Others try to enter the establishments that require masks without adhering to the requests. Others just stay at home because they refuse to comply.
Why won’t they wear masks? Some of it goes back to the Surgeon General’s early recommendation that masks were not helpful in stopping the spread of the coronavirus. Many people chalked this up to an attempt to save the few high-quality masks that were available to healthcare workers while others took it as the Gospel. However, Surgeon General Adams seems to have walked this back and has since demonstrated on video how to make your own face mask.
There are a couple of other reasons, too. First, many feel based on the information above that the masks are not effective. If they don’t work, why should they go through the discomfort and for some, the difficulty breathing that mask-wearing brings?
Some see it as a symbol of weakness.
To some, wearing a mask means admitting a fear they may not have consciously confronted yet, said David Abrams, a clinical psychologist and professor of social and behavioral science at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.
Many view the mask as a walking symbol of vulnerability that tells others you’re scared about contracting the virus. So to compensate for that fear, and as a show of strength, they may reject the masks entirely, he said. (source)
For others, it’s a matter of liberty. They feel that wearing a mask is a symbol of bowing down to tyranny or a symbol that the wearer has been silenced.
Even though wearing masks isn’t compulsory in much of the US, adhering to these rules may feel like, to some, a forfeiture of their freedoms.
People naturally rebel when they’re told what to do, even if the measures could protect them, said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Psychology of Pandemics.”
“People value their freedoms,” he said. “They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms.” (source)
That last reason shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our nation was built on refusing to be told what to do.
There has already been violence over masks
People have already expressed their displeasure on both sides of this debate…sometimes violently.
Unfortunately, retail workers are often the ones bearing the brunt of the anger when they’re simply trying to enforce the policies set forth by their employers. One of my daughters is a retail worker. She and her coworkers have been warned they’ll be fired on the spot if they haven’t followed the arbitrary guidelines of people standing on Xs and limiting the number of customers in the store. Officials from corporate headquarters have dropped in unbeknownst to employees to check that their measures are being enforced. She’s definitely not alone and the risk of violence is high. But she – like many others – is just happy to still have a job.
Earlier this month, I wrote about three violent incidents that occurred when people refused demands that they wear a mask in certain establishments:
A physical fight erupted at a gas station in Decatur, Illinois when a customer refused to don a mask to pay for his fuel. Sgt. Brian Earles with Decatur Police spoke to the press about the incident. It seems that a 59-year-old customer got into a verbal altercation with a 56-year-old cashier when he was trying to pay for gasoline without a mask, as is mandated by the state of Illinois. The customer allegedly shoved the cashier, who said he felt threatened, and the cashier responded by punching the customer in the face. The customer was arrested and charged with battery over the incident.
In Holly Michigan, a Dollar Tree customer refused to follow the posted store policy of wearing a mask. When a young female employee approached him and let him know of the policy he responded by saying, “Here, I will just use this as a mask,” and wiped his face on her sleeve. The customer continued to behave belligerently until he left. The entire incident was caught on store surveillance.
At a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, the most violent response yet occurred when Calvin Munerlyn, a security guard for the store, was shot and killed after he refused to allow a customer’s daughter to come into the store without a mask. (source)
And the violence is not one-sided. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a fight broke out when someone coughed in a parking lot.
A 53-year-old man confronted a motorist who reportedly coughed without covering his mouth in a convenience store parking lot. The argument sparked a physical confrontation, and the coughing man opened fire. No one was injured. Both men were arrested for assault. (source)
More than one woman has been violently assaulted because she chose to wear a mask:
An Asian woman wearing a mask was attacked by two men and called “diseased” in a subway station in New York City’s Chinatown, according to the New York Police Department (NYPD). Four people were arrested in March in Hilton, New York, after they allegedly punched and taunted a woman for wearing a respirator mask in a store, according to the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. (source)
In Vermont, people are snitching on members of their communities to publicly shame them for not wearing masks. [Grammatical errors are quoted directly from the source]
Some of the messages read like field reports: “The sidewalks between price chopper and walmart had groups of people standing together no mask or social distances.”
Others like warnings: “I want to make you aware of the health crisis that is ongoing at the floating bridge in Brookfield. Since fish were stocked in the pond it’s become a daily gathering spot of dozens of covid ignoring people.”
Others are more inquisitive: “Picture below shows people at Roxie’s in Bomoseen VT around 5 pm. I am the only one wearing a mask. Can u ask the Governor at his Monday press conference what citizens should do if they witness these blatant violations of his mandatory mask order?” (source)
Peter Erb, a Hinesburg, Vermont resident believes these attempts at citizen enforcement are dangerous.
Erb said it’s also dangerous to have citizens enforcing the rules against each other — pointing to violent incidents in other states when citizens have attempted to enforce the rules. In Michigan, a security guard at a Family Dollar was shot and killed after he told a shopper to wear a mask. An order requiring people to wear masks in a city in Oklahoma was dialed back to a recommendation after a slew of threats of violence in the first hours the order was in place.
Erb said he worried the coronavirus compliance divide, played out nationally, could turn angry and politically partisan. He also pointed to a more personal experience.
“You know my wife got into a fairly contentious discussion in a grocery store when somebody wouldn’t back off, had no mask and just wouldn’t distance,” he said. “And, you know, that’s a fairly controlled situation, and, you know, in Hinesburg.” (source)
Erb isn’t wrong about this becoming a partisan topic, either.
Is this where the battle lines will be drawn?
This debate is somewhat, but not entirely, divided down partisan lines. It’s notable that you will rarely see President Trump or Vice President Pence wearing one.
Here are the demographics of mask-wearing:
Whether Americans are embracing the change may depend on their political party. While most other protective measures like social distancing get broad bipartisan support, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they’re wearing a mask when leaving home, 76% to 59%, according to a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The split is clear across several demographics that lean Democratic. People with college degrees are more likely than those without to wear masks when leaving home, 78% to 63%. African Americans are more likely than either white people or Hispanic Americans to say they’re wearing masks outside the home, 83% to 64% and 67%, respectively.
The notable exception is among older people, a group particularly vulnerable to serious illness from the virus. Some 79% of those age 60 and over were doing so compared with 63% of those younger. (source)
The issue now is that those with masks and those without masks are clearly members of a “team” or a “tribe.” And a return to tribalism can be dangerous when paired with the many things that we’ve lost over the first half to 2020. We’ve lost loved ones, we’ve lost jobs, we’ve lost businesses, we’ve lost our incomes, and many are on the verge of losing homes and cars.
It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to think that if violence were to erupt, people who feel the opposite way about masks could become targets of the outraged group. Outrage and the potential for civil unrest are things I’ve written about numerous times throughout this pandemic.
A person wearing or not wearing a mask is as clearly marked as somebody wearing a red bandana in the wrong neighborhood during a tense moment when people are butting heads during the mask debate. Is that really the hill you’re prepared to die on, metaphorically speaking?
What should you do?
I’m not here to tell you whether or not you should wear a mask when you leave the house. I strongly believe we should be responsible for our own health and therefore make these choices ourselves. At the same time, I support the right for businesses to choose whether or not to serve people who refuse to wear masks. If you, as a customer, feel strongly about not wearing a mask, you should vote with your wallet and go to stores that don’t require it. This is a purely libertarian point of view. It’s about personal responsibility and the free market.
Personally, I keep a mask tucked into my purse and wear it if the establishment I’m visiting has a policy requiring it. If I had to visit a hospital or a friend with a health vulnerability, I’d wear a mask out of caution and courtesy. I do choose which grocery store I shop at based on the mask policy (I go to the store that doesn’t have a mask policy) and I do not wear one unless it’s required.
However, from a preparedness point of view, there’s a different angle.
If your goal is to blend in with the crowd and not be a person who draws the attention of others, then it’s good to check the local baseline and see what other people are doing. In areas where the majority is wearing a mask, the gray thing to do would be to wear one too.
If you are in an area where nobody is wearing a mask, the gray thing would be to go along with that group with a caveat. If you are extremely concerned about your health or the health of a loved one, forget about the crowd and do what you think is right. Just don’t try to force others to conform to what you think is right.