And yet, like so many seemingly nonpolitical topics, donning a mask has become partisanized to the point that people are brawling in supermarkets over their right to infect others. “It’s a free country; I can do what I want” sounds charming when it comes from a child. It can be far worse when it is shouted from the mouth of a possibly infected adult. It’s a strange sort of freedom that includes exposing other people to a potentially deadly virus. What’s to resist about showing respect to your fellow Americans? Why turn a straightforward public health issue into a political one? The virus doesn’t care whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. It ravaged blue states in the spring, and now it’s plowing through red ones. All it cares about are finding open mouths and nostrils.
It’s crazy that we are having this debate after all. Dozens of countries have already mandated mask-wearing in public. It’s not a coincidence that the United States remains the world’s coronavirus hot spot.
Only recently — as the virus descends on the places where their political supporters live — have some top Republicans come to their senses. On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, whose state is currently being overwhelmed with new cases, issued a statewide mask mandate. (Indoor churchgoers are exempted, but outdoor protesters aren’t.) There have been encouraging words from the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, Vice President Mike Pence, even Sean Hannity. Earlier this week, Steve Doocy, a host of “Fox & Friends,” which has as direct a line to President Trump’s brain as any top White House adviser, pleaded with the president to “set an example” and wear a mask. MAGA should now stand for “Masks Are Great Again,” he said. We’re not holding our breath. Even with records being set daily, the White House refuses to issue a nationwide face mask mandate.
Some resisters are still sore about the contradictory or incorrect messages about masks that came from health officials in early days of the pandemic. In late February, Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams tweeted: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.”
Anthony Fauci said a version of this a few days later. “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask,” he told CBS. “When you’re in the middle of an outbreak, wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet, but it’s not providing the perfect protection that people think that it is.”
These were missteps, without question. But remember the context in which those pleas were made. In early March, hospitals across the country were preparing for a massive surge of patients, and masks were in perilously short supply. Considering the significant risks to front-line health care workers, and the lack of sufficient protective gear, it was understandable — even if misguided in retrospect — to want to ensure that masks were available to those who needed them most.
(By the way, why, in the richest country on the planet, was there such a glaring shortage of masks? It’s not as though the mask makers didn’t see what was coming. One executive at a Texas medical supply company warned the Trump administration back in January that he was getting deluged with orders from abroad. He offered to produce as many as 1.7 million N95 masks per week for the federal government. The administration declined.)