Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the efficacy of masks has been widely debated. Despite multiple studies proving beyond doubt that face coverings can reduce transmission rates, many Americans are choosing not to wear masks and are even protesting for their right to refuse.
How did we get here? Surely face masks are a simple safety measure comparable to wearing a seat belt in a car? If so, why do many individuals see face coverings as an instrument of control and an attack on freedom?
Masks: Controversy in the US
According to a poll by IPSOS, 87% of Americans have worn a face mask or face covering outside their homes since mid-June. This is up from 61% in mid-April, which is encouraging in the face of the record-breaking new case numbers we’re currently seeing in some parts of the US.
Despite these stats, the question of whether governments and businesses should make masks obligatory rages on and continues to be politically divisive. For example, a recent poll showed that Democrats are more likely to wear a mask than Republicans, which falls in line with messaging from the leaders of the two parties. President Trump himself has suggested that wearing a mask could be seen as a political statement against himself and has openly mocked Democratic leader Joe Biden for doing so. This anti-mask stance has been echoed by various Republican leaders, even as their states are seeing worrying surges in new cases.
This clear difference in beliefs between the two party leaders has trickled down into mainstream society, and the divide has become increasingly cultural. Strong stances for and against masks are being seen across the country and in apparent retaliation to businesses insisting that masks be worn, other companies are only admitting customers who aren’t wearing masks.
Where did the Mask Backlash come From?
Anti-lockdown protests have been popping up across the US over the past couple of months, as people became fatigued by being confined to their homes. Individuals took to the streets to demand that they are allowed access to non-essential businesses like hair salons and movie theaters, and a common similarity among those protesting has been the absence of face masks or coverings. This is seemingly where the anti-mask movement originated.
As businesses did begin to open up again, the backlash grew and more protests were sparked by mandatory mask-wearing in public places like grocery stores. Hundreds of videos have appeared online showing employees being harassed after turning away customers for their refusal to wear a mask. These altercations have spilled over into violence in some instances, including a shooting in Flint, Michigan after a store employee told a customer that her daughter had to wear a face mask.
Why do Some Americans Refuse to Wear Masks?
The key argument heard from many anti-maskers is that it is an attack on their personal freedom. Some groups are comparing masks to dog muzzles, and others claim it’s impossible to breathe while wearing a mask. Many people have also commented that face-coverings prevent social interactions as it’s not possible to smile at one another, and some groups claim that masks “throw God’s wonderful breathing system out of the door”. The hashtag #ignitefreedom has even appeared online, where anti-maskers film themselves burning their masks.
It’s thought by some experts that the source of these protests is the conflicting messaging that we saw at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. When news of COVID-19 first emerged, masks were widely discouraged and public health officials said they weren’t necessary for anyone not showing symptoms. This advice changed in early April when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that new research proved that coronavirus could be spread by asymptomatic carriers.
A lack of trust in government officials may also be to blame for the divisive response to mask-wearing. Anthony Fauci, one of the lead members of the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 taskforce, publicly admitted that a part of the reason why masks were discouraged is that the US was experiencing a shortage of masks for essential front-line workers.
Why Should We be Wearing Masks?
The CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) agree that masks should be work in public when social distancing is not possible, and this advice is backed up by most major public health experts. Buying a high-quality, purpose-made face mask is the best way of staying comfortable while you do your part to reduce the spread.
We know that masks alone can’t guarantee protection from COVID-19, but ongoing research has proved time and again that transmission can be reduced by using face coverings. Even if you feel well, wearing a face mask can help protect vulnerable members of your community in the event that you are an asymptomatic carrier.
Mask wearing should not be a political issue. Choosing whether or not to wear one is a question of public health and community spirit. And as many people now agree, it is a key factor in the US reducing COVID-19 cases and getting back on track.