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  • Sydney Pickering

The Political Charge of Face Masks in America

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

The United States is five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and the nation has yet to see President Trump wear a face mask in public. Instead, Trump’s rejection of masks discourages many of his constituents to take the piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) seriously. He was photographed maskless in May while touring an N95 mask production facility in Arizona. As rates of infection skyrocket again, White House allies have changed their position. White House advisors are now urging him to wear a mask to “set a good example.”

During the first few months of the pandemic, health advisors dismissed the effectiveness of masks, and it was not until April that cloth coverings over the nose and mouth were recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An overwhelming number of studies now suggest that masks can minimize the risk of transmission when in close proximity. One study conducted at Heriot-Watt University in the UK found that all face coverings without an outlet valve reduce the forward distance of particles traveled by deep breath by at least 90%. So why do so many Americans continue to ignore this precaution?

It is clear that face masks are more of a political issue than a medical one. The politicization of face masks can be boiled down to the fundamental conflict between the rights of the individual and the scope of the government. The face mask debate we are dealing with today has only been exacerbated by fierce hyperpartisan politics.

The line between mask-wearers and mask-opponents is not as simple as Democrats and Republicans. However, party lines have worsened the ideological divide rather than uniting Americans during the pandemic. Some Americans believe wearing a face mask has become a symbol of the Democratic Party–though to many wearers, it is a simple act of communal responsibility and faith in the medical profession. After all, the face covering does more than protect oneself; it also limits exposure risk for others. Some GOP members have called on their constituents to ignore the political baggage of mask-wearing. When state and local governments have issued executive orders for facial coverings in public, renouncing one is often an act of protest. Just 16 states nationwide have implemented mandatory face mask guidelines, of which Kentucky is the only conservative-majority state. Many Americans these mandates are a breach of the First Amendment or the sign of an overbearing government. In some cases, opponents see masks as a sign of weakness. It is no surprise, then, that a study conducted at Pew Research Center found that 76% of surveyed left-leaning individuals wore a mask at all times in the past month-- versus 53% of surveyed right-leaning individuals. It is possible that the failure of GOP leaders to enact any formal regulations is due to a fear of pushback from their party of President Trump. So while party lines have not drawn a distinct line between those who wear or reject a mask, the piece of cloth has become a symbol of the Democratic leadership.

This is not the first time that Americans have banded together in opposition to this politically charged piece of fabric. In order to place the COVID-19 pandemic into historical context, many have drawn parallels to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920. Considered one of the worst pandemics in human history, the influenza hit America’s western seaboard in fall of 1918. Within a few months, San Francisco’s elected officials had locked down most of the city and Republican Mayor James Rolph Jr. had issued an executive order to wear masks in public. Though masks had already become widely accepted, the ordinance received backlash for reasons similar to today.

Unlike today, those who did not adhere to the masking order faced legal repercussions. In one extreme circumstance, in October of 1918, over 100 people were arrested for either refusal to wear the mask or improper usage. Most often, those in public without covering were fined approximately $10, which can be converted to roughly $170 today. The money from those fines were put to use as donations for the Red Cross.

Opposition to the city’s mandate continued into the new year. By January 1919, the Anti-Mask League was founded in San Francisco. The group was well-organized and gained a lot of traction. They united against their public health leadership, refusing to wear masks. Their members believed that this obligation was unconstitutional and contradicted the ideals of a free society. At one protest, Anti-Maskers were reported chanting for their right to freedom and liberty. This can easily be compared to the anti-lockdown protests that took place this past May. Both members of the Anti-Mask League and opponents today believe that these government orders are an outright violation of their First Amendment rights.

After the loosening of influenza mask regulations, San Francisco again saw a spike in cases. However, Mayor Rolph was reluctant to reintroduce his executive order, as he had been overwhelmed with a number of threats, including a bomb. City officials in San Francisco other than Rolph had also received similar complaints and threats. The Trump Administration may be hesitant to support any legislation requiring face masks for fear of personal repercussion, particularly his re-election odds.

Some even argued against San Francisco’s ordinance on the basis that the masks themselves incited chaos, fear, and panic. This argument suggested that the best way to deal with the influenza was to keep people calm and maintain a sense of normalcy. President Trump has adopted the same rhetoric when explaining why he does not wear masks in public, offering his justification that he wants to “normalize” the country.

As states across the nation hastily reopen under federal guidelines, larger corporations and smaller businesses have had to take safety measures into their own hands. For many, reopening and entry comes with the provision that customers must wear face masks and social distance. Essential workers trying to enforce these safety measures have continuously faced verbal abuse and threats violence. One restaurant in Los Angeles closed only days following their reopening after its employees were met with constant harassment. Their closing statement noted that their mask requirement “isn’t symbolic...other than our desire to keep our staff healthy.” Some local and state governments have actually received requests from business owners to enact regulations to ease the pressure off of them.

In any case, it is obvious that any form of enforcement for mask-wearing has been met with serious opposition efforts. Questions regarding the legality of these orders have centered mainly around First Amendment rights. However, a judge from Harris County, Texas has reasoned that a face mask “does not obstruct one’s freedom of expression,” and that the line must be drawn when someone’s actions– in this case, not wearing a mask– harms another person’s health. The government does have the ability to implement laws in order to protect the lives of their citizens. Precautions we take for granted today, such as seat belts, designated smoking areas, and food inspections, were once met with opposition, too. This is not to say people can not voice their opposition to regulation, but that issues regarding health crises must transcend political debates.

Face masks are inherently political, but in the face of a public health crisis, the lives of citizens must be prioritized over partisanship and First Amendment rights. Americans are in agreement that cloth coverings will not cure the virus; however their ability to limit the spread of the virus is the solution to a gradual recovery. If we want to go back to “normal,” then we must normalize the use of masks. We must accept masks as part of our everyday lives, just as we do with shoes, shirts, and seatbelts.

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