Forgive Americans if they are clouded by facial masks. President Donald Trump and the federal government have made a number on them.
First there was the phase of not doing it. Then the pleasant dissonance, but not for me. Followed by local rule exceptions do not apply. Complemented by Trump’s stated suspicion that some people wear masks just to trolle him.
Everything has been added to a shady message about one of the critical tools in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. And the politicization of the use-or-not-use debate is clear in recent public polls.
To be clear: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth face covers in public places where other measures of social distancing are difficult to maintain. Some states and local communities require them.
But Washington’s disconnection of messages was evident as recently as Friday, when Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump’s decision to host two large mask-shortage meetings last week in states with large waves of infections and, in one case, local regulations requiring masks.
“We simply believe that the most important thing here is for people to hear leadership in their state and leadership in their local community and adhere to that guide if it has to do with facial coatings or it has to do with the size of the meetings “Pence said.
At first, the government’s message without a mask was unequivocal. Because the first known COVID-19 infections were identified on US soil, top public health officials insisted that the masks should be reserved for front-line workers.
Later, the CDC issued its recommendation for fabric coverings in public settings where other measures of social distancing were difficult to maintain. But Trump immediately undermines that guide by adamantly stating that he would not follow it.
He told The Wall Street Journal this month that some people wear masks simply to show that they disapprove of it.
Now, the mask debate is heating up in the south and west, where infections are increasing to levels the country has not seen since April, when the Northeast and Midwest were particularly affected.
In Arizona, Florida and Texas, with Republican governors and huge spikes of infections, there have been doubts about requiring people to wear masks in public spaces.
But in California, Nevada, and North Carolina, with Democratic governors and rising infection levels, the rules requiring masks went into effect last week.
The split in masks is stark even within Republican belt states, where some Democratic mayors of big cities have imposed their own mask rules.
What further complicates the message is that when Trump questions the effectiveness of the masks and refuses to wear one in public, Surgeon General Jerome Adams has turned to Twitter to state that “I show my patriotism with a mask in public!”
That would be the same surgeon general who tweeted on February 29: “Seriously, STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing the general public from contracting #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers cannot get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk! ”
The hesitation about face masks has baffled public health experts, as studies suggest the coatings could have a dramatic impact on limiting the death toll from the virus.
“I think the public health community has made it very clear that face masks can help reduce the spread of the virus,” said Ayaz Hyder, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University. “The problem is that you send mixed messages when the person at the top of the federal government says, ‘No, I’m fine.'”
The political calculations of the debate are unfolding across the country and are evident in public polls.
While most other protection measures, such as social distancing, garner broad bipartisan support, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they wear a mask when leaving home, 76% to 59%, according to a poll. The Associated Press-NORC Center’s recent research on public affairs.
In Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order this month that prohibits municipalities from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who refuse to wear masks. But he has not opposed efforts by some Texas cities and counties to require companies to impose mask rules on their employees.
In Arizona, Republican Governor Doug Ducey said that mayors, not the state, would decide on their own mask terms. Richard Mack, president of the Association of Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers, declared at an anti-mask rally in Scottsdale last week that the mask mandates were government overreaches and would not be enforced.
“We have a pandemic in the United States and in Arizona,” said Mack. “But it is not the coronavirus. The pandemic is one of universal corruption, the pandemic is one of the destruction of our Constitution.
In Florida, which reported nearly 9,000 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected Democrats’ pleas for a statewide mask order, saying “More flies can be caught with honey than with vinegar”.
On Friday, Bruce Owens, 66, of Lakeland, Florida, wore a white surgical mask while walking through downtown St. Petersburg. He said he was disappointed by the disparate responses from Florida’s elected officials to the outbreak.
In Lakeland, he says, officials opted for a face mask mandate, while the mayor of St. Petersburg signed an ordinance on Monday requiring masks inside public places.
“They have handled it extremely poorly,” Owens said of state officials. “They really haven’t listened to the experts.”
Charles Kyle Durr of Groveland, Florida said he would wear a mask if necessary, but questioned the need for a broad government mandate. “I don’t think everyone needs to wear a mask,” Durr wrote to the AP. “Only a person with Covid symptoms or someone who has been diagnosed with Covid needs to wear a mask.”
The alleged Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, is eager to make facial masks a campaign issue. He told a Pittsburgh television that he would “do everything possible” to demand that Americans wear face masks in public places where social distance cannot be maintained.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, responded that “people should follow CDC guidelines.”
But on Tuesday, Trump was in Phoenix for a Students for Trump event at a megachurch, where few attendees wore masks. The president declined to use one despite the Democratic mayor urging him to do so.
Appearing before a House committee that same day, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, was asked about Trump’s refusal to wear a mask.
Fauci avoided targeting the president directly, but said he personally wears a mask “not only because I want to protect others and protect myself, but also to set an example.”
On Friday, members of the White House coronavirus task force once again urged Americans to practice social distancing, frequent handwashing, and wearing face shields in public spaces.
But Pence sidestepped questions about whether the president’s refusal to wear a mask and his large campaign meetings sent mixed messages.
“Even in a health crisis, the American people do not lose our constitutional rights,” said Pence.