Written by: Gabi Fowler
As economies continue to reopen and coronavirus cases and related deaths climb, face masks continue to be a vital form of protection. Initially, many states skipped the crucial step of mandating masks when reopening. However, recognizing the need, many states have recently implemented mask mandates in public spaces. Yet even with these mask mandates, a small yet vocal minority adamantly refuses to wear masks. While initially the guidance regarding masks was confusing, research has since proven the effectiveness of masks and health organizations have agreed on their importance. Today, the mask debate extends beyond being merely an issue of public health, but also a political and social one. In addition to mandates, the roots of the mask-wearing reluctance needs to be understood to counteract the cultural arguments at the heart of the debate.
Most importantly, masks need to be reframed as a catalyst for freedom rather than an inhibitor of freedom.
To understand masks and their role in American society today, we must first look back and understand the path of confusing guidance by top global and national leaders over the past few months. Initially, as a result of a lack of sufficient evidence and fear of personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages for health workers, the World Health Organization (WHO), the world’s leading global health institution recommended against masks for non-healthcare workers and asymptomatic people. It wasn’t until June 5th, 2020 that the WHO reversed course on this and recommended masks for everyone (although not medical grade ones necessarily). On top of changing recommendations, on the national stage, President Trump initially had not only refused to wear a mask—the only exception being his July 11th visit to the Walter Reed Medical Center—but had also decried other leaders who have worn masks. President Trump’s encouragement that masks were merely “voluntary” and a matter of choice rather than necessity compounded with changing recommendations from health organizations caused the average American citizen to become wary and distrustful of the public health value of masks and the purpose of masks generally. Although Trump finally ended up giving in and wearing masks on July 21st after three long months of officials within his administration pushing the importance of masks, such mixed guidance through the initial course of the pandemic has resulted in the planting of the idea that masks were a threat to basic national values of freedom.
Polling done by National Geographic in late June showed that 15% of those polled said they either “rarely” or “never” wear a mask when leaving the house. These polls also indicated that people’s opinion of Trump greatly correlated with their mask-wearing. Of those who had a “very favorable” opinion of Trump, 42% always wear a mask compared to 72% of those with a “very unfavorable” opinion of Trump. Similarly, 46% of Republicans said they always wear a mask compared with 75% of Democrats. While 15% may seem like a small minority of Americans, it is a significant population considering masks are a basic measure to curb the ongoing pandemic and requires as much compliance by all as possible to be successful. The 15% of people who are not wearing masks are likely to be of the same population who are distrustful of masks and see them as an infringement to personal liberties. They additionally are more likely to be right-leaning politically.
It is these remaining people who are likely the ones looking to leaders like Trump and other political leaders for direction on whether or not to comply. As leading health organizations have now proven masks’ effectiveness and economies are starting to reopen up again, new additional efforts to target this remaining population is needed to maximize mask-wearing and save lives.
One approach to increase mask use, which many states and cities have taken up, is to create laws mandating masks in public spaces for all. A study in Mexico City during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 examined this approach. Alongside other intense infection control measures, the federal government of Mexico had recommended masks for all users of public transportation, while Mexico City mandated masks for public transportation drivers with the highest penalties going toward taxi drivers. This study found that mandates do slightly increase compliance with mask wearing and the higher the penalty, the higher the resulting compliance. However, this study also stressed the importance of public perception of the implementation of public health measures and how that can greatly impact their outcomes. This suggests that positive public perceptions is a critical component of higher compliance. Unfortunately, in many places across the United States, although there are laws mandating the use of masks, the punishments for noncompliance are often nonexistent and/or police are not prioritizing their enforcement. Moreover, many studies have even proven that enforcement of lower level offenses tend to target poor and minority communities, so there is a likelihood that mask mandates, intended to protect vulnerable communities, would turn back around and harm those same communities. This is particularly concerning given the already hostile political atmosphere regarding police brutality and their targeting of poor and minority communities. Thus, creating penalties for noncompliance of wearing masks may not only fail to target the remainder of the population who aren’t wearing masks, but result in increased inequities in populations who are already most vulnerable during this pandemic.
Thus, while policies are an important start, in order to increase mask-wearing in the United States, a more social strategy needs to be undergone. To truly universalize masks across the country, leaders, especially those who have a significant “anti-mask” following, need to reframe what it means to wear a mask and normalize them across American society to target those who still see masks as unnecessary or an infringement of rights—thus, reversing the remaining negative perception of masks. One example of this is Representative Liz Cheney’s tweet captioned “#realmenwearmasks” featuring a picture of her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, in a mask. Leaders using their social media platforms to normalize mask-wearing and to encourage their supporters to do the same is powerful. This particular tweet was especially powerful given that Representative Liz Cheney represents a consistently conservative state and Dick Cheney is an important Republican figure.
Having political leaders who are supported and trusted by their communities actively wearing masks rewrites mask-wearing as an act of freedom rather than a government intrusion of rights. Likewise, it reinforces the trust that masks are not some oppressive conspiracy, but rather a real measure to end this pandemic.
Freedom, here, is not the choice to wear a mask or not, but rather the choice for all of us—who are past ready for the pandemic to be over—to go outside safely and freely.
For the past couple of weeks, we have been hitting the wrong kind of records: record confirmed cases in a day, record cases per capita, etc. As the need for everyone to wear masks becomes increasingly important to combat these rising figures, new strategies need to be used to target the remainder of people who are still reluctant to use masks. Although there is little research into what works in increasing compliance of public health measures mid-pandemic, it is clear that endorsements by health professionals and mandates are not enough. The polling cited earlier indicates that one’s opinion of Trump correlates with their opinion of masks. Thus, President Trump’s recent tweet this month of him donning a mask and endorsing it as patriotic shows a step in the right direction in this regard. His rebranding of wearing masks as an American value could make a real difference in influencing his supporters’ decisions to wear masks, as well as the decisions of others who were still distrustful of mandates to wear masks. For the safety of all Americans, masks need to become a part of the new normal and it is now up to America’s leaders and figureheads to ensure that happens.
Edited by: Mila Ho