In June, a shopper in North Hollywood, Calif., was confronted at a Trader Joe’s for not wearing a mask. Her diatribe about “Democratic Pigs” went viral — and so did a July 19 video showing American Airlines passengers applauding as a woman who refused to wear a mask was booted from a flight.
Wearing a face covering has the support of public health officials. Just last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, urged government leaders to be “as forceful as possible” about wearing face masks, no matter where they live, to ward off the spread of COVID-19. We wear masks to protect ourselves and those around us, given that asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic citizens can be contagious.
Who are these maskless people? A recent Gallup poll concluded that people who refused to wear a mask were more likely to be Republicans. Could it be true that more than a third of Republicans are ignoring a government directive to don a mask?
When I consider those in my panel of 500 voters who are undoubtedly part of President Trump’s base, Brenna is one who comes to mind. A dedicated bus driver for a Pennsylvania school district, she believes that Trump is the best president we have ever had, and she is satisfied with how he is managing the pandemic. She fits the profile of a “mask rejector.”
Instead, she told me she wears a mask often: “When I go into a store, I wear a mask, and when I return to work, I will be wearing one all the time. You can bet you won’t be seeing me at a concert, ball game, or any other large gathering.”
Or take Kevin, a college professor from North Carolina who holds Trump in high esteem. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 meaning “I wear a mask all the time,” and 1 meaning “I don’t own one,” Kevin rated himself a 7. Over time, he has become convinced that when he wears a mask, he is protecting his neighbors. “Two months ago, if you told me to wear a mask, I would have told you something that you can’t print in your newspaper,” he said, “but now I think it might help, and I am willing to do anything reasonable to get this overblown COVID behind us.”
Brenna and Kevin are not alone. Over 90 percent of my panel of voters rated themselves a 7 or higher when asked about wearing a mask. They don’t necessarily like it, complaining about heat, difficulty breathing, and discomfort, but they report that they are mostly in compliance and are unhappy with those who are not. Said Phil, a Republican from Idaho, “I’m very disappointed in people that don’t wear a mask. I think they’re rude, uncaring people that I want nothing to do with.”
The minuscule group of voters in my panel who reported that they rarely wear masks said they were rejecting government overreach, valuing their freedom above all else. And, yes, a few thought the coronavirus was a hoax.
We tend to make assumptions about those we see with no face covering: that they are irresponsible, uneducated, or just selfish. Last Tuesday, I stopped several unmasked walkers on the Boston Harborwalk — all under age 35 — and, like my panel, most claimed to be rigorous about wearing a mask. They profess to be compliant when inside — and, when outdoors, they believe they can create enough social distance to be safe. Said Marci, who lives in the North End, “My friends and I basically make a judgment call about the level of contagion. If we are going to be outside and it’s mostly open, we leave our masks at home.” Added her friend Emily, “If I think I am going to violate the 6-foot rule only for a few seconds, I don’t think a mask is warranted.”
What can we infer from the data? First, in the absence of clear guidelines, which vary from state to state, people are inventing their own rules. I’ve heard about the “⅔ Rule,” implying that you should always do two of the following: Go outside, wear a mask, and practice social distancing. I also heard the “Ask the Host Rule,” the “How Fast You Are Moving Rule,” and the “Look at Your Local Outbreak Rule.” Second, people’s behavior doesn’t always mirror their commitment. Third, those videos of noncompliant rebels we see every day make for fascinating viewing, but to assume that mask rejectors are running rampant throughout our country distorts reality.
In some ways, it is a relief to know that when I see someone’s face totally exposed, they might not be flaunting their politics but just making the best judgment call they can..
Both President Trump and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell recently changed their tune and came out in favor of masks, signaling to supporters that a bare face is not a requirement for advertising your devotion to the president. A great public service announcement with more precise guidelines could help the problem — especially if religious leaders, conservative governors, right-leaning media, and the president start signaling that it’s the patriotic thing to do.
We can take comfort in knowing that most Americans are getting with the program. They are dealing with the sweat, the annoyance, and the foggy glasses, and they have no plans to run through your grocery store screaming about their liberty. The danger is not from those who have chosen to politicize masks. It’s from Americans who, in the absence of more specific and clear direction from our leaders, have had to fill the information vacuum about best practices.
This is an anxious time for Americans. The COVID-19 tests are not always accurate; the science is evolving; the data are inconsistent; and the guidance keeps changing. We need scientists and government officials to give us their best — and more precise — shot. In the meantime, they are delegating the details to a group of amateur public health experts: the citizens of America.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html