Pandemic Chronicles: The mask is the message

How a health precaution got drafted into the culture wars

Mask story
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/FRANK X. MULLEN: The masked and unmasked don't always see eye-to-eye.

Who was that unmasked man? I wanted to smack him. Or, depending on your political ideology, you might want to shake his hand.

“It really ticks me off when I see people without masks (in stores),” said Chrissie Gardner, 52, of Sparks. “… Maybe they are trying to make a point or being selfish or just stupid, I don’t care why. By now they should know it’s to protect other people.” She said if she enters a store and sees any employees without masks she “backs the hell out of there. If they are that lax, I hate to think what else is going on.”

Al Casscarelli, 38, of Reno, said he won’t wear a face mask, even if it’s required by law, which isn’t the case in Nevada, although some stores like Costco require shoppers to use them. He said those who wear masks are “sheep” and are letting the government erode their civil rights. He equates masks with “socialism” and government overreach. “There’s no need for them, they don’t do anything,” he said. “Take off your mask and live your life.”

And so it goes. A face mask isn’t just a cloth anymore. It can be interpreted as a symbol, a statement of a political or personal position. Something recommended for the health of the community has suddenly been endowed with other meanings. People interviewed who wear masks said they use them because they care about the health of others. Those who don’t cover up had varied reasons not to do so. They said they won’t follow the recommendation out of  defiance or distrust of authority. Or they cited information they saw on the Internet. One woman interviewed outside the Sparks Raley’s said she’d like to wear a mask, but has a medical condition that makes it difficult for her to breathe through a cloth covering. The non-masked folks interviewed consistently dismissed any information offered that conflicted with their arguments.

An unscientific survey of two grocery stores in north and west Reno and one in Sparks during afternoons in the last week of April and again on May 22, showed the percentage of mask use remained about the same or slightly increased over the course of a month. In April about 50 to 70% of customers were wearing masks. By the end of May that percentage held, with a couple stores seeing as much as 75% to 80% mask usage. That’s not the case everywhere.

Glee Willis of Reno, who shops at WinCo Foods on Northtowne Lane in Reno once a week, said she noticed mask use going up steadily over the last three weeks and then dropping off on her fourth visit May 20.  “Last time, I was in the minority. Maybe 20% of the customers were wearing them,” she said. Willis, a retired librarian, said she based her decision to wear a mask on science and data, so she knows they help stem the spread of the virus. When she sees people without masks in a store she feels “alarm and disgust,” she said. But she doesn’t lecture anyone. She gives the unmasked patrons a wide berth, pays for her groceries at the self-check and gets out of the store.

Sometimes confrontations can be nasty, as a shopper recently discovered in a northwest Reno Safeway. The woman, in her 60s, wore a mask. An unmasked couple in their 40s was in front of her in the checkout line. When the couple moved up to the register, the cashier gestured for the woman behind to advance and put her groceries on the conveyer belt. The woman declined, opting to wait until the couple in front moved on. When the couple realized the woman didn’t want to get near them, the man faced her, pursed his lips and blew her “the raspberries,” a rude — and in the context of a respiratory virus spread by tiny spit globules — dangerous, reaction.

Far more violent incidents have been reported elsewhere. In Flint, Mich., on May 1, a security guard at a Family Dollar Store was shot to death following a dispute over wearing masks. In another confrontation in Michigan, a man wiped his face on a store clerk’s sleeve after being asked to wear a face covering. At some of the protests against stay-at-home orders, demonstrators have mocked media reporters and others who were wearing masks.

 The Centers for Disease Control recommended April 1 that people wear cloth face coverings when they visit stores and other places where it may be difficult to maintain social distancing to avoid spreading their own germs, even if they aren’t feeling sick. People can be infected with COVID for days without having symptoms and can be spreading the virus during that time by talking or just breathing near other people. As more stores open and people re-enter public places, masks are becoming more common. It didn’t take long for them to become a flashpoint in the culture wars.

 “Initially, with that shock (of the pandemic), boom! People were like they were after 9-11, when it was all of us affected and everyone was red-white-and-blue, we’re all in this together,” said Steven C. Hayes, professor in the Behavior Analysis Program at the Department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. He said cooperation among humans evolved when our ancestors lived in small groups. They had to value the good of the community over the selfish needs of individuals. But now the “we” affected isn’t a small band or tribe, “in the context of a pandemic, the ‘we’ is everyone on the planet,” he said.

At first, he said, “we” were all in the same boat. But in time it was obvious that different people were affected differently. “And then people started using the situation to deliberately create divisions so that they could then benefit from the smaller ‘we’ becoming ‘us’ against ‘them.’ And so we get to that stage and full cooperation is gone. We get to an upside-down world in which trying to do something pro-social, something that’s good for other people, becomes a negative. It becomes doing something because you’re a wuss, or because you’re a servant of the press or whatever. On both sides that happens.”

Health experts support wearing masks, but opponents see the recommendations – in some areas, mandates — as a loss of freedom that is somehow different from having to wear a shirt and shoes into a store. Some people may decide not to wear masks by doing their own research and making up their minds. But there are plenty of forces influencing their decisions.  “Think about people who watch media channels that lie constantly,” Hayes said. “How hard it must be for those people to do this thing. Don’t be too judgmental about people who blow raspberries or run around without masks. They’ve been stirred up to do that.” They also get mixed messages from the highest levels of government. Masks are required at the White House, yet President Trump and Vice President Pence have consistently refused to wear masks during public appearances.

Social media fuels the debate. Users often gravitate to feeds that share their own ideologies. Postings reinforce their current beliefs and they rarely see alternative perspectives. Posts  spread bizarre misinformation, such as saying that masks cause brain damage because users breathe in their expelled carbon dioxide or that the development of a COVID vaccine is a plot by billionaire Bill Gates to implant GPS trackers into every citizen.

 But preferring opinions and conspiracies about masks over the assurances of scientists and doctors apparently isn’t a majority view, according to recent polling. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll this month revealed broad support for masks, although the results also showed divisions depending on party affiliation, education and age. The poll found that Democrats are more likely to wear a face mask when leaving the house compared with Republicans, 76% to 59%. College graduates are more likely than those with no degrees to wear masks (78% to 63%) and 79% of respondents over age 60 said they wear masks as compared to 63% of respondents younger than 60. But will that support last?

As the strain of the lockdown and economic hardship wears on, people are starting to get careless, Hayes said. “At the very beginning, I said look at all the people cooperating,” he said. “Eighty to 90% of the people were self-quarantining, sheltering in place. It’s plummeting now. In Nevada, we’re one of the better places. Look at the crowded bars in Wisconsin (where a court invalidated the state’s stay-at-home order). People are getting tired of it.” But the virus isn’t tired.

“It’s not over,” Hayes said. “Set the clock. Check back in two weeks as some states open wide. How often can we pull back again? (Some critics claim) people stay home because they are afraid. No, we’re staying home because we care about people.” As restrictions loosen,  businesses reopen and the weather warms, lockdown-weary residents will want to put isolation behind them and rejoin society. If severe outbreaks flare up and tighter restrictions return, will the polarization grow wider or will a majority accept them again?

“Enough fear may do it,” Hayes said. “But a lot of people are going to have to die for that to happen. We’re losing the greater ‘we’ and going to the us-against-them mentality… Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask, but nothing about this justifies ridiculing other people, no matter what choice you make.” He said all members of a community have an obligation not to put others in danger. “There is no libertarian choice that allows me to have my freedom at the cost of your life. That’s not libertarian; that’s just selfish. Jerky behavior won’t help us get through this.”

With COVID still at large, masks probably will be part of our lives for some time.

“They may become a sort of visual language in a society divided between mask-wearers and non-mask-wearers. Masks will become a different kind of badge of honor. They’re about health, not politics.”

Glee Willis, Reno

Our content is free, but not free to produce

If you value our local news, arts and entertainment coverage, become an RN&R supporter with a one-time or recurring donation. Help us keep our reporters at work, bringing you the stories that need to be told.

Donate to RN&R

$3,791 of $6,000 raised
$
Select Payment Method
Personal Info

Donation Total: $10.00 Monthly

These donations are not tax deductible. If you would like to make a tax-deductible donation to our nonprofit fund, the Independent Journalism Fund, please click here.

3 Comments

  1. In 1918 a pandemic struck the world The US demanded face masks and social
    distancing. It worked only 50-100 million people died. So wear your 1918
    technology and social distancing. It failed before!

  2. It’s true the scientific consensus is that mask-wearing alone did little to stem the 1918 pandemic. But recent evidence conclusively shows that face-coverings, whether fabric or other material, definitely reduce the volume of viruses expelled by the person wearing the mask. A 1921 study (by Warren T. Vaughn) of mask-use in 1918 noted the use of masks in that pandemic was problematic due to human behavior. Thin gauze masks were used daily until they were filthy, users cut holes in them to smoke and eat, people wearing masks thought they provided more safety than they did and so didn’t socially-distance, they were worn in ways that offered little or no protection, and people usually took them off indoors, where they were most at-risk of infection. Vaughn concluded: “It is safe to say that the face mask AS USED was a failure.” A 1927 study (Edwin Jordan, et al, Journal of the American Medical Association) determined that masks were effective when worn by “patients already sick or by those directly exposed to victims.” (With COVID, it’s hard to tell who is “already sick” or have been exposed, which is why a mask is recommended for everyone who gets close to others.) The study, which was expanded into book form, also noted that the use of masks is “uncomfortable and inconvenient,” and requires a great deal of discipline to be of benefit to the wearer. So the lesson of 1918 is not that masks don’t work – they do – but that they are but one tool that must be used widely – and properly — by individuals and combined with other precautions, including social distancing, sheltering in place and frequent hand-washing.

  3. Great article Frank, you touched on a lot of points, esp how differently people used masks in 1918. I loved, loved the “a COVID vaccine is a plot by billionaire Bill Gates to implant GPS trackers into every citizen” part. Seriously, the conservitards should all be sci-fi writers! They could out sell L. Ron Hubbard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*