Mask mandate divides US as Covid cases rise
As images of people wearing surgical masks flashed across the screen, Morgan Freeman’s deep, soothing voice delivered a message to America: “When you wear a mask, you have my respect. Because your mask doesn’t protect you, it protects me.”
Using familiar actors, stirring background music and the arresting eyes of people peering out above their masks, a broad national ad campaign unveiled on Thursday by New York State, once the centre of the coronavirus pandemic, aimed to educate people about how covering their mouths and noses could save lives.
That it was needed at all — six months since the virus was first detected in the US — speaks to the lingering fight about the use of masks. At local government meetings and in the checkout lines of big-box stores, Americans continue to wrestle over one of the simplest methods that health officials recommend for stopping the spread of the virus.
A tidal wave of new mask requirements has been issued in the last few days, amid surging cases in many regions, including more than 75,000 new coronavirus cases across the country on Thursday, the most in a single day. Face coverings will be required at stores such as Walmart, Target and CVS, and in a growing number of Republican-led states where governors once resisted such mandates.
More than half the states have issued statewide mask requirements, including Arkansas, where governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, announced a face-covering requirement on Thursday, after previously taking a more hands-off approach. Governor Jared Polis of Colorado, a Democrat, also issued a mask order on Thursday, after questioning whether such a mandate would be enforceable.
But there remains firm resistance in many circles, including from some Republican leaders who view mask requirements as a threat to personal liberty.
Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia, who announced this week that he was suspending all local mask mandates, filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging the authority of leaders in Atlanta to require masks inside their city’s limits. As the mayor of Atlanta, the suit said, Keisha Lance Bottoms “does not have the legal authority to modify, change or ignore governor Kemp’s orders”, only to carry them out.
And in Oklahoma, governor Kevin Stitt said this week that he remained opposed to a mask order, even after he became the first governor known to test positive for the virus. “You can’t pick and choose what freedoms you are going to give people,” Stitt said during the Zoom call on which he announced his positive test.
Masks have been broadly accepted in many European and Asian countries. Britain and France issued nationwide mask orders for certain public places this week, joining a long list of nations that already required them.
But in the US, there was initially confusion and shifting guidance over masks. The issue became politicised when, even as the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began urging Americans to wear face coverings, President Donald Trump stressed that the measure was voluntary, and said he did not think he was “going to be doing it”.
Trump publicly wore a mask for the first time on Saturday.
Early in the pandemic, federal officials instructed Americans not to buy or wear masks. The guidance came in part because of an early, limited understanding of the virus and because of shortages in medical-grade masks, which were needed for essential workers.
In April, the CDC revised that guidance, advising that cloth face coverings were recommended.
Public health officials increasingly see masks as a powerful weapon against the virus, particularly after the World Health Organisation acknowledged that the virus can be airborne, with tiny respiratory droplets able to linger in the air for hours. Masks can block dangerous respiratory droplets that would otherwise be spread by infected people, and universal mask wearing can help stop inadvertent transmission by people who are asymptomatic.
In an example cited by the CDC this week, vigilant mask wearing was credited with preventing two ill stylists at a hair salon in Missouri from spreading the virus to nearly 140 clients, none of whom became ill.
Dr Robert R. Redfield, the director of the CDC, said in an interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday that if all Americans embraced rigorous mask wearing, the country could control the virus within one to two months.
The vast majority of Americans support wearing masks, polling suggests. According to a Gallup survey conducted online from June 29 to July 5, 72 per cent of adults surveyed said they always or very often wore a mask when outside their homes, while 18 per cent said they wore a mask rarely or never.
But in some conservative areas, wearing a face covering is also seen as a political and cultural symbol, and mask requirements have been considered a serious infringement.
“It’s absolutely not acceptable in a free world,” said Ammon Bundy, who once led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge and was protesting a mask ordinance in Idaho on Thursday.
Idaho has faced a sharp rise in cases and warnings from hospital leaders about the trajectory in the state, and a local health board scheduled a meeting to discuss masks. But a heated discussion emerged on Thursday between protesters and local health officials. A young girl began crying, police officers arrived to calm the situation, and the board cancelled the meeting.
In Provo, Utah, dozens of people packed a county commissioners meeting where officials were scheduled to discuss whether students should wear masks when they return to school in the fall. That meeting on Wednesday was postponed shortly after it started — many people in the audience had shown up without masks.
Some in the audience booed the chairman of the commission when he pointed out that the crowd was not following public health guidelines.
“This is the exact opposite of what we need to be doing,” the county chairman, Tanner Ainge, a Republican, said, his mask looped around his ears but lowered to his chin. “We are supposed to be physically distancing, wearing masks.”
Clashing views on masks have grown especially pronounced in parts of the Deep South. The Republican governors of neighbouring states, Alabama and Georgia, issued markedly different orders on Wednesday despite facing urgent outbreaks.
Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama issued a statewide mask order, drawing blowback from some in the ranks of the Republican-held State Legislature, even as Kemp suspended all local mask mandates, a move that affected at least a dozen cities and drew pledges of defiance from some officials.
"It’s like a rebellion,” said Russell Edwards, a Democrat and the mayor pro tem of Athens-Clarke County, where Kemp is from.
New York Times News Service