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How did wearing masks to combat coronavirus become such a political football?

Of all the polarizing issues dividing Americans during the overlapping crises of a worldwide pandemic and nationwide civil unrest over police brutality, the facial mask has become an odd symbol of partisan passions. But there it is, sparking discord far and wide.

While most other nations have quietly required face coverings to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in this nation, these ubiquitous pieces of paper and cloth have triggered an enduring debate over government authority versus personal freedoms.

In Southern California alone, the evidence of conflict over masks is everywhere: viral videos of public tantrums and confrontations, partisan bickering and shaming on social media, political tirades at public meetings — even death threats.

Last month, Orange County Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick resigned after she started getting death threats and protesters began showing up outside her home in reaction to the agency’s countywide mask mandate. The county health agency’s director who took over her job, Dr. Clayton Chau, said he has been threatened as well.

Political hot potato

Fallout stemming from the mask mandate has surfaced all around Southern California:

  • At a grand opening of a North Hollywood Trader Joe’s on June 26, a woman was captured on cellphone video in a tirade, throwing down her shopping basket and screaming that market employees were “Democratic pigs” for insisting that she wear a face mask.
  • On the same day, the owners of Hugo’s Tacos shut down the popular food spot in Los Angeles, saying they were “exhausted” by customers refusing to wear face masks and harassing, name-calling and assaulting employees with objects and liquids. Hugo’s said it would reopen “when it’s safe.”
  • Basilico’s Pasta e Vino in Huntington Beach took a stand online, announcing that it is opposed to asking people to wear masks in public, eliciting mixed reactions from customers.
  • Citrone Cafe in Redlands announced on Instagram that it would shut down its dine-in operations after its kitchen staff was criticized for not wearing masks. The social media post said kitchen workers were given the option of not wearing masks because of the “intense heat” in the room.

According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted from June 4 to 10, 65% of U.S. adults said they wore a mask in stores or businesses all or most of the time in the past month while 15% said they did so some of the time. The survey also found that Democrats or those who lean Democratic are more likely than Republicans to say they personally wore a mask in the past month — 76% versus 53%.

While more Republican leaders in Congress and Republican governors have started speaking in support of wearing facial coverings as COVID-19 cases surged in the past few weeks, President Donald Trump has yet to wear a mask in front of a camera. But after mounting pressure from his party, he changed his tone last week, saying Wednesday that he is “all for masks” and would not have a problem wearing one in public.

But the mask issue has clearly become part of “our polarized national debate around identity and political affiliation,” said Andrew Lakoff, professor of sociology at the USC.

“You have a situation where (President Trump) has taken it on as an emblem of his political ideology. Not wearing a mask is being implicitly linked to masculinity and freedom. It’s become a statement for some, a badge of identity.”

The anti-mask sentiment also taps into a long-existing belief in individual freedom, anti-government ideology and a distrust of those in authority telling the people what’s best for them, Lakoff said.

‘It shouldn’t be about politics’

Regardless of political affiliation, it does appear that a majority of people now support mask use. On the Facebook page Safe Places OC, which has nearly 6,000 members, mask proponents call out Orange County businesses that don’t follow mask or social distancing rules. San Clemente resident Marissa Padilla-Williams, a member of that Facebook group, says she will not support a business that is “anti-mask.”

“When I go to a store and I see a manager talking to someone without a mask, I question that store’s policies, too,” she said.

Padilla-Williams says she is moderate in her political views, but believes wearing a mask should not be politicized.  “I never thought common courtesy and listening to health experts would become political issues,” she said.

Inconsistent messaging

Inconsistent messaging from health experts — from the Centers for Disease Control to the World Health Organization to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief expert on the coronavirus — appears to be the source of much of the conflict.

During the initial days of the pandemic, wearing masks was discouraged for the public, with Fauci and others saying there was no evidence they were very effective. Later, that claim was walked back and health officials acknowledged their initial fears that panic-buying of masks could cause a shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care workers.

The CDC has since said any type of face covering can help prevent the spread of the virus.

“We now know that any barrier in front of your face is better than none,” said Dr. David Eisenman, professor of medicine at public health at UCLA. “We know that it will prevent you not just from exhaling the virus, but also inhaling it.”

Chau agrees that the science on wearing facial coverings has evolved from the early days of the pandemic.

“Other countries that have been strict with masks, such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam, have seen their numbers get much better,” he said. “Using face coverings can result in a large reduction of infections. This is not something we’re pulling out of thin air. There are studies that show face coverings reduce airborne transmission by trapping droplets.”

The lack of mask usage, he said, has contributed to an increase of coronavirus cases in Orange County.

Although Gov. Gavin Newsom has made wearing masks a statewide mandate in an effort to combat the latest COVID-19 surge, several police agencies, including the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, have said they won’t enforce it.

Dozens of Orange County residents have come to Board of Supervisors meetings in recent weeks urging the board to abolish its  own mask mandate, while others have signed an online petition to keep the rules in place. Opponents have cited a variety of reasons, from skepticism about the science behind masks to the need for individual freedom.

Protests played a part

The nationwide protests that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer have added another political dimension to the issue, with many — largely conservatives — questioning how protesters can be allowed to congregate in large numbers with no social distancing measures while others are prohibited from gathering for important life events such as weddings and funerals, or congregating at houses of worship.

Eisenman believes critics are merely “weaponizing” masks and social distancing to speak out against the protesters’ cause.

He said there is no evidence yet that the recent protests have caused a surge in coronavirus cases. He believes that because the protests are held outdoors and most participants were wearing masks, it is unlikely they caused an increase in coronavirus spread.

Chau agreed there is no evidence yet to link the protests to the recent surge in coronavirus cases, but Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti finally acknowledged last week, after initially denying it, that large protests in his city have contributed to the rise in infections.

New marketing strategies

To encourage more people to use masks and to get beyond the polarization, Eisenman said new marketing approaches must be devised.

“The idea that my mask protects you and your mask protects me simply has not worked in many parts of the country,” he said. “So, maybe, we need to appeal to people’s self-interest — be it fashion, jobs, the economy, patriotism — whatever it is.”

In Philadelphia, Matt Carl, a 30-year-old entrepreneur and supporter of the president, has been making and selling red “Make America Great Again” and “Trump 2020” cloth masks. He sells about 100 of them every day and says Californians buy most of his masks.

“This is a business venture, no question about it,” he said. “But what I’ve found is that it opens up the idea of wearing masks for people who wouldn’t otherwise wear them.”

Carl believes in the science behind masks and hopes more people, including Trump, will wear them.

“The government lost a lot of trust when it initially told us not to wear masks, giving anti-establishment groups legs to stand on,” he said. “They should’ve managed the messaging better.”

Carl said he believes the reason the mask issue became politicized was because of the anti-Trump sentiment in the news media.

“The more the media knocks (Trump) for not wearing a mask, the more he doubles down and refuses to wear one,” he said.

“People think masks take away their freedom. But in reality, the more people wear masks, the quicker we can all get out of it.”

Going beyond polarization

The polarization over masks has been “disheartening to the health-care community,” said Dolores Green executive director of the Riverside County Medical Association.

“To be able to care for those who are in hospitals and for those who are coming to be able to have the resources, we need the public to do their part,” she said. “If not, our hospitals and emergency rooms will be overwhelmed.”

Hospitals in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have already begun to take steps to be able to accommodate more coronavirus patients in anticipation of a surge.

The first step is to stop politicizing the issue of wearing face coverings, Green said.

“We really need our leaders all over the country to stand behind the science and make this a uniform message,” she said. “No matter who you are, this is the right thing to do to get our country through this pandemic.”

Staff writer Ryan Carter contributed to this report.

Source: Orange County Register

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