As the coronavirus outbreak worsens in 22 states, communities across the U.S. are torn over one of the most basic measures to limit its spread: requiring people to wear masks in businesses and public spaces.
Localities have moved in starkly different directions in recent days over whether to mandate masks. Some have instituted new mask rules or moved toward doing so; others have rejected such regulations or even flip-flopped on them after public resistance. The contest is between scientific evidence that masks significantly slow the spread of a serious illness and the feeling that mandating them represents government overreach.
With various areas settling that argument in different ways, the result will likely be a national divide that has deadly consequences for millions of people who are denied a layer of protection amid an uptick in cases in several large states, including record increases reported in Florida, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Oregon and Nevada on Tuesday.
Doctors and residents in Montgomery County, which has the most cases in a state that has recently seen unprecedented growth in reported infections, highlighted the stakes of the policy choice Tuesday at a Montgomery City Council meeting on a proposed mask mandate, the Montgomery Advertiser reported. Ninety percent of local patients critically ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are Black, physician William Saliski said.
“The question on the table is whether Black lives matter,” said William Boyd, a supporter of the policy who lost six family members to the disease.
But ultimately, the council sided with members who claimed ― inaccurately ― that masks had little effect and a requirement would violate Americans’ constitutional rights. The vote was “mostly along racial lines,” according to the Advertiser, with all the votes against the mandate cast by white council members.
Medical experts say masks are key to staying safe from coronavirus, in tandem with other measures like hand-washing and social distancing, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear them in public settings where they will be exposed to others.
Political leaders who oppose mask rules appear to be out of touch with public sentiment. Nearly 80% of Americans surveyed by the research firm Navigator from June 11 to June 15 said they worry that other people’s failure to use masks and follow social distancing guidelines will bolster the coronavirus. That included 64% of the Republicans and 93% of the Democrats surveyed. Seventy-seven percent of Americans are already using masks to some extent when leaving home, the survey firm Ipsos reported on the basis of research conducted from June 5 to June 8. That behavior tracks with earlier HuffPost findings that the country’s partisan divides have not yet produced a culture war over masks, with 62% of Americans saying the coverings are about public health more than personal choice.
In some areas, officials are following science and popular opinion. The city councils in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Memphis, Tennessee, voted Tuesday to mandate masks in public. The same day, the mayors of nine Texas cities asked Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who had barred them from mandating masks, to give them more flexibility. “We should trust local officials to make informed choices about health policy,” the top officials of Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, El Paso, San Antonio, Austin and three suburban cities wrote. The next day, with Abbott’s approval, Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, moved ahead with a mask mandate.
In Congress, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) barred lawmakers who defy new rules requiring masks from attending committee meetings starting Wednesday.
But elsewhere, politicians and activists are resisting efforts to make people wear masks, something President Donald Trump has resisted doing himself as some of his supporters portray the pandemic as a hoax to damage his political fortunes. The fracture over the protective equipment is now clear even outside the world of politics: When announcing plans to reopen AMC Theatres on Thursday, the cinema company’s CEO, Adam Aron, told Variety he would not require customers to wear masks because of the “political controversy” around such measures. (On Friday, AMC reportedly reversed course and decided to require masks.)
The pushback to mask mandates takes two forms. Abbott offered an example of the genteel strain, which acknowledges the risk of the coronavirus but condemns the idea of a requirement. “All of us have a collective responsibility to educate the public that wearing a mask is the best thing to do,” the Texas governor said Tuesday. “Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach for this thing.”
Abbott will reopen public schools in Texas in the fall but will not require students to wear masks, state officials told the Texas Tribune on Thursday.
In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) encourages mask-wearing but has told officials statewide that if they mandate masks in local government buildings, he will cut them off from federal coronavirus assistance because they shouldn’t deny taxpayers services over their failure to wear face coverings, the Omaha World-Herald reported on Thursday.
The other brand of criticism is more explosive, particularly if it continues to gain popularity and avoid scrutiny under the cover of more polished messaging.
Residents of multiple areas considering or implementing mask requirements see the policy as verging on totalitarian and themselves as freedom fighters. One woman who recently spoke at a meeting of the Board of Supervisors in Ventura County, California, described a mask rule as representing “the wholesale slaughter of our constitutional and inalienable rights.” (The board voted on Monday to mandate masks in government buildings, businesses and public transit.)
In Orange County, California, the director of the county health care agency, Clayton Chau, revoked a rule requiring masks last week after protests by locals, including dozens who appeared at a county board meeting to claim that officials were repressing citizens’ immune systems, harming children and promoting discrimination. His predecessor in the role, Nichole Quick, quit after receiving threats for instituting the policy. The county’s daily average of newly reported cases over the last week reached its highest level on Tuesday.
It’s already clear on a small scale how nasty the fight over masks can get. On April 6, Guthrie, Oklahoma, became one of the first places in the country to require wearing coverings in public. Residents began protesting the rule in Facebook groups ― including one for supporters of the anti-vaccination movement, which has embraced coronavirus conspiracy theories ― and an attorney from outside the town named Frank Urbanic helped locals sue the Guthrie government. “There are people who are going to question these things and take action when necessary,” Urbanic told The New Yorker.
The town dropped the policy. Another Oklahoma city, Stillwater, revoked a mask ordinance in a matter of hours after customers at a Walmart threatened employees trying to enforce it and a person called the police threatening to shoot any officer who attempted to enforce it.
There’s a clear link already between skepticism of the mask policies and risks to not just public safety in the face of the pandemic but also the personal wellbeing of health officials, according to Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press. At least 27 such leaders have left their posts in 13 states since April.
“It’s disheartening to see people who disagree with the order go from attacking the order to attacking the officer to questioning their motivation, expertise and patriotism,” Kat DeBurgh, the executive director of the Health Officers Association of California, told the news services. “That’s not something that should ever happen.”
Ariel Edwards-Levy contributed reporting.
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