In the midst of the pandemic, a small piece of cloth sparked a nationwide feud over public health, civil liberties and personal freedom. Some Americans refuse to wear a face mask on principle. Others in this country are furious at the way people are flouting the mask mandates.
Bob Palmgren tried to be polite – at first. He told a customer he had to wear a mask at his restaurant, RJ’s Bob-Be-Que Shack in Mission, Kansas. The client, a man in his forties wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) cap, threw a gun and said he was exempt from a statewide mask requirement. He said he could explain the statutory exemption to Mr Palmgren.
Mr Palmgren, a former sailor, told the client he was not interested in continuing the conversation. Mr. Palmgren was also not influenced by the client’s weapon. “The coronavirus doesn’t care whether you have a gun or not,” Mr. Palmgren said, describing his conversation with the client. “I said, ‘Now get out of here.’ ”
The argument in the restaurant reflected a deep division over the requirements to wear masks in this country. Kansas residents, as well as those who live in more than half of the country, are now required to wear masks in public as part of an ongoing effort to slow the spread of the virus. But some people fought against the warrant.
Wearing masks has become a catalyst for political conflict, an arena where scientific evidence is often viewed through a partisan lens. Most Democrats support wearing masks, according to a poll by researchers at the Pew Research Center.
Most Republicans don’t. Republicans are following the president’s lead: Trump was reluctant to wear a mask, saying it didn’t seem right to wear one as he received heads of state at the White House. He put on a mask in public for the first time during a visit to a military hospital earlier this month.
The battle over masks has intensified in the final weeks of the campaign season. General elections take place in November, and activists from both Republican and Democratic parties are working feverishly to secure victory at the polls. Some of them clashed over the issue of masks: As Timothy Akers, professor of public health at Morgan State University, a historically black university in Baltimore, puts it: “We see politics and science literally crashing. ”
The mask dispute embodies the political dynamics of the campaign. It also reflects a classic American struggle between those who defend public safety and those who equally believe in personal freedom.
The conflict over masks is tense, unstable and deeply personal. Mr. Palmgren, owner of RJ’s Bob-Be-Que Shack, was trying to follow the state’s mandate when he argued with the gun-carrying client.
Other stories about masks unfolded across the country. When employees at a Michigan pizzeria told a customer she had to wear a mask, she made an obscene gesture, kicked someone in the restaurant and, according to local officials, fled from the police.
A fight over masks led to gunfire outside a Los Angeles grocery store, authorities said, and a rapper named Jerry Lewis was killed.
The fight for masks is taking place against a backdrop of a health crisis which is reaching historic levels. More than 3,544,000 people in the United States have tested positive for the virus, according to the World Health Organization, and at least 137,000 people have died.
The divide between those who wear masks and anti-masks, as they call themselves, has grown increasingly sharp. In interviews in the Midwest and across the United States, people pushed their heels down and defended their position, whether for or against wearing masks. Many of those interviewed seemed deeply suspicious of people on the other side and blamed them for the country’s economic and public health crises.
Resentment was palpable in the voice of Susan Wiles, a retired sign language interpreter, as she described what had happened to her at her local supermarket, Publix in Vero Beach, Florida. Ms Wiles, who suffers from an autoimmune disease, was in a motorized cart in the produce department when a worker “jumped back”, she said, and gave her “a garish look. “.
As she remembers: “He shouted, ‘You don’t wear a mask’. It was a real commotion. Another guy joined in and said, “She’s a threat to society. Get her out of here. Then he shouts, ‘Why don’t you just go to a Trump rally?’ ”
In fact, Ms. Wiles attended the President’s rallies. A Trump supporter, she says she doesn’t wear a mask because she believes concerns about Covid-19 are overblown. “Of course there is a virus,” she said. “But people die from the flu every year. Regarding the pandemic, she says, “I’m not afraid of that. It’s not what they say it is. “
Since its confrontation at Publix, the supermarket chain has implemented a formal policy requiring customers to wear masks. It will come into effect on Tuesday. Walmart, CVS, and other retail stores across the United States have already implemented a mask requirement. This makes it harder for Ms. Wiles and the other anti-masks to stick to their standards. Yet some persist.
Neil Melton is a construction project manager who lives in Prairie Village, Kansas, and he admires Mr. Trump. As for the masks, Mr Melton doesn’t think they are effective: “There really is nothing you can do to hide yourself from the virus. He also believes the mask warrants in Kansas and other states are an example of “government overrun.” He explains: “There are people in power who want to see what people will submit to.”
The disease has spread the fastest in that country into Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia and other conservative Republican-leaning states where economies opened early and people are less likely to carry masks.
How Americans in those states and other parts of the country fret over the mask requirement recalls a time when people here were first asked to wear seat belts and not smoke in restaurants. The Americans also initially resisted these restrictions. But now they are following these safety guidelines. However, many have yet to start wearing masks.
Trump supporter Crystal Lynn, an administrative assistant in Fairfax, Va., Says she doesn’t like wearing masks because they make her skin break out. Other than that, she says she doesn’t think masks work: “It’s a false sense of security.” She puts on her seat belt while driving because she knows they can save your life. But masks are not “in the same category,” she says, “I don’t think a mask protects you in any way. ”
The anti-masks have expressed their point of view loud and clear. Yet overall, people here are comfortable with wearing masks and have adopted them more easily than those who live in the UK. Almost 60% of people in the United States said they would always wear a face mask when going out, according to Covid-19 Behavior Tracker. In the UK, less than 20% said the same.
People who study infectious diseases find it difficult to understand the political divide around masks and understand the public reaction to health guidelines. “Some people don’t wear masks because they say they don’t ‘work’ – quote, don’t quote,” says David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. “There are other people who see masks as a violation of their rights. “
The opinions of anti-masks are not shared by public health experts. They say wearing masks helps prevent infected people from passing the virus on to others. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently said in a webcast that if everyone in the United States started wearing masks “right away,” the outbreak would be brought under control within two months.
However, their advice on masks has changed over the last few months and has been confusing at times. Earlier this year, public health officials told people not to wear masks because they feared there might not be enough face covers for healthcare workers. By late spring, the scientific understanding of the virus and its transmission had changed, as had advice to the public.
This is what drives Democrats crazy. They believe that masks can help prevent the spread of infection and that if people covered their faces in public, the country could return to normal more quickly.
For Matt DiGregory, a restaurateur who lives in Bernalillo, New Mexico, and his employees, the cost of the pandemic has been high. He closed a number of restaurants due to the economic downturn. Of its 550 employees, only 60 remain.
Masks, he says, are mandatory for anyone who visits restaurants that remain open. If a client does not have one, workers have additional masks to wear while inside the building. “I think masks are the only way out of this situation,” says DiGregory. “I am incredibly sad that there is a political divide over this and that there are people who think this is a hoax. ”
Some in Kansas and other states agree with Mr. DiGregory even when they do not share his political views. Mr. Palmgren, owner of RJ’s Bob-Be-Que Shack, loves the way Mr. Trump is running the country. But unlike the president, Mr. Palmgren is not ambivalent about the masks. Mr. Palmgren insists that everyone in his restaurant has a covering face.
Several days after meeting the client wearing a MAGA cap and a gun, Mr. Palmgren appears more disappointed than angry at the incident. Mr Palmgren says the client gave Trump supporters a bad name. Recalling the customer’s behavior, Mr. Palmgren says, “It doesn’t make MAGA look good. ”
Later that day, Mr. Palmgren was standing outside the restaurant. He called someone who was heading for the front door and told them they needed a mask. For Mr. Palmgren, the requirement is non-partisan and non-negotiable.