After minimizing the effectiveness of the masks for weeks, elected officials and health officials across the country have been urging people since early April to wear them. You can’t get on a plane or an Uber without one. People are required to wear one when they leave their home in New York.
But in Virginia, you can still walk into a Walmart, Home Depot, or ABC store with an uncovered face.
Journalists at the Richmond Times-Dispatch spent nearly 15 hours this week observing nearly 2,900 people entering stores to shop for groceries and other supplies in the city and surrounding communities. More than half – 1,480 – were not wearing a mask or other face covering. On Wednesday, two dozen others did something wrong: a woman entered the Home Depot in Chester with a black band wrapped around her neck and over her mouth, covering her nose completely.
Shopping with an uncovered face increases the risk of contagion for everyone around you. Many of those who end up being positive do not have symptoms, which makes it difficult to say that they are spreading the virus to others. But measurement is often positioned as a preference, in the blink of an eye to a culture that emphasizes individual freedom.
It shouldn’t be, said Lois Shepherd, a professor of biomedical ethics at the University of Virginia medical school, who sees similarities between the arguments against masks and vaccination.
“These are not just individual choices, because we live in societies where we can unintentionally affect the health of others. We are supposed to drive safely. We have to wear a mask. All of these things we do not only for ourselves, but for the rest of society, “said Shepherd. “I think now it’s so culturally and politically diverted in a way, the issue of wearing a mask, I think it has a symbolic effect of where you are politically. “
Gallup poll last month found the percentage of Americans who said they wore a mask outside went from 38% to 62% in just one week, but the same poll found Democrats were much more likely to declare wearing a mask as Republicans. and that more people report wearing masks in cities than in rural areas.
In the Times-Dispatch snapshot, people shopping in Hanover County were the least likely to wear a mask, with only 1 in 3 covering their faces. Buyers in Chesterfield and Henrico counties were both just below 50%, and Richmond was just above, with 54% of buyers wearing masks.
Figures fluctuated from store to store, but without a clear pattern beyond the locality. More than 60% of those entering The Wegmans in Chesterfield wore a mask Monday afternoon. In Hanover, less than a third of people entering a Home Depot on Wednesday morning did so. On average, those observed were no more likely to wear a mask in a grocery store than a hardware store.
A recent study and a computer model from the University of California, the International Computer Science Institute of Berkeley and the University of Science and Technology of Hong Kong suggest that if 80% of people wore masks in public, the spread coronavirus would drop. But the impact of masks drops dramatically in the model if the rate of use of masks drops below 50%.
Dr. Danny Avula, director of the health districts of Richmond and Henrico, said Thursday that everyone should behave as if they and everyone are infected, and continue to stay at home if possible, wash their hands frequently and wear masks in public.
“It is going to be a moving period. I’ve already seen social media leads in the past two months, where people are quick to judge and shame others for their choices, “said Avula. “I just want to remind people that this is the time to focus your energy on keeping you and your loved ones safe. And then on helping others productively [to] stay safe and healthy if you can. “
The message about the masks has been mixed up since the spread of the coronavirus here in March: officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization initially said people shouldn’t wear them , because the world was faced with a shortage of specialized N95 masks. for medical staff and first responders.
Agencies reversed the trend last month, announcing that face covers can help prevent people from infecting others – even if they don’t protect the wearer.
On April 3, President Donald Trump announced new guidelines from the CDC and said that people should wear masks in public places where social distancing is difficult, such as grocery stores or pharmacies. He said that wearing a mask is “very easy to do” before noting that it is voluntary and that he would not.
Not long ago, wearing a mask in Virginia was illegal: a woman was accused in January of breaking state law on masks from the 1950s when her face was covered after a rights demonstration guns one morning in Richmond with temperatures hovering in the 1920s. The charge was later dropped.
“The guidelines are contradictory,” said Virginia Health Commissioner Norm Oliver last week. “You can go back in time and find people who say they are not working. Then it was recommended to use them, mainly to protect others. And it certainly is, if you are wearing a mask and you are sick, you are less likely to expose others. “
He added: “But there is more and more evidence that it is also protection for yourself. The CDC and ours guidelines are that if you are in a situation where you cannot practice social distancing – outside your home – you should cover your face. “
Oliver said a piece of cloth the size of a napkin, folded and with ties at both ends, is an option for people without a fabricated mask.
For some, the decision is more practical than political. When downtown Short Pump reopened on Friday as a result of the summer heat, many buyers and passers-by walked around with masks firmly in hand, hidden in purses or hanging from one ear – but not always covering their face.
They said it was too hot.
A group of eight family friends, all without masks, who drove from Powhatan to celebrate the possibility of shopping again, felt that if you stay safe and wash your hands, the masks are not required.
Another client, Kathleen Wright, was waiting for her sidewalk pickup order from Crate & Barrel with her two sons, who also wore no masks.
“We knew it was an open environment and we have no plans to go inside the stores,” she said. “But generally, when we go to places where we are close with other people, we end up wearing masks. “
Larry Rice wore a mask Monday afternoon when he stopped at a CVS in South Richmond. He said he had been wearing one since March 11, the day his mother died.
“This is about self-protection and the protection of others,” said Rice. “I think it will be for a while. “
A Kroger spokesperson said employees are now required to wear masks. And although they volunteer for buyers, the company prefers that customers carry one to stores or use pickup or delivery for groceries.
On Wednesday at Short Pump Walmart, scrub health workers were accompanied by friends and roommates, none wearing masks. The families followed. The children were playing with the planters in front of the store. Sometimes children wore masks. Some parents were.
Others hung theirs under their nostrils and hugged babies who also had no blankets. They walked past a sign that said, “Face cover recommended while shopping.”
Only a few watched it.