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Forgive the American people if they’re in a fog about face masks. President Donald Trump and the federal government have done a number on them.
First there was the don’t-do-it phase. Then the nice-but-not-for-me dissonance. Followed by the local-rules-don’t-apply exceptions. Topped off by Trump’s stated suspicion that some people wear masks just to troll him.
It has all added up to a murky message about one of the critical tools in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. And the politicization of the to-wear-or-not-to-wear debate is clear in recent public polling.
To be clear: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Some states and local communities require them.
But the messaging disconnect from Washington was evident as recently as Friday, when Vice President Mike Pence defended Trump’s decision to stage two big mask-scarce gatherings in the past week in states with big surges in infections and, in one case, local rules requiring masks.
“We just believe that what’s most important here is that people listen to the leadership in their state and the leadership in their local community and adhere to that guidance whether it has to do with facial coverings or whether it has to do with the size of gatherings,” Pence said.
Early on, the government’s no-mask message was unequivocal. As the first known COVID-19 infections were identified on U.S. soil, top public health officials insisted masks should be reserved for front-line workers.
Later, the CDC issued its recommendation for cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures were difficult to maintain. But Trump immediately undercut that guidance by flatly stating that he wouldn’t be following it.
He told The Wall Street Journal this month that some people wear masks simply to show that they disapprove of him.
Now, the mask debate is heating up in the South and West, where infections are surging to levels the country hasn’t seen since April, when the Northeast and Midwest were particularly hard-hit.
In Arizona, Florida, and Texas, with GOP governors and huge spikes in infections, there’s been a hesitance to require people to wear masks in public spaces.
But in California, Nevada and North Carolina,- with Democratic governors and increasing infection levels, rules requiring masks took effect this past week.
The divide on masks is stark even within Republican-leaning Sun Belt states, where some big city Democratic mayors have imposed their own mask rules.
Further complicating the messaging is that as Trump questions the effectiveness of masks and refuses to wear one in public, Surgeon General Jerome Adams has taken to Twitter to declare that “I show my patriotism by wearing a face covering in public!”
That would be the same surgeon general who tweeted on Feb. 29: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
The dithering over face masks has unnerved public health experts as studies suggest that the coverings could have a dramatic impact on limiting the virus’ death toll.
“The public health community, I think, has been 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 you send mixed messages when the person at the top of the federal government is saying, ‘Nah, I’m OK.’”
The political calculations of the debate are playing out all over the country, and evident in public polling.
While most other protective measures such as social distancing get broad bipartisan support, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say they’re wearing a mask when leaving home, 76% to 59%, according to a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott this month issued an executive order prohibiting 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 businesses to impose face mask rules for their employees.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said mayors, not the state, would decide their own mask mandates. Richard Mack, president of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, declared at an anti-mask rally in Scottsdale this past week that mask mandates were government overreach and wouldn’t be enforced.
“We do have a pandemic in America and in Arizona,” Mack said. “But it’s 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 has rejected Democrats’ pleas for a statewide mask order, saying “you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
On Friday, Bruce Owens, 66, of Lakeland, Florida, wore a white surgical mask as he walked around downtown St. Petersburg. He said he’s been disappointed by the disparate responses of Florida’s elected officials to the outbreak.
In Lakeland, he says, officials opted against a face mask mandate, while the mayor of the larger St. Petersburg signed an ordinance Monday that requires masks inside public places.
“They’ve handled it extremely poorly,” Owens said of state officials. “They haven’t really listened to the experts.”
Charles Kyle Durr, of Groveland, Florida, said he would wear a mask if required, 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 symptoms of Covid or someone who’s been diagnosed with Covid needs to wear a mask.”
The presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, is eager to turn face masks into a campaign issue. He told a Pittsburgh television he “would do everything possible” to require Americans to wear face masks in public settings where social distance can’t be maintained.
Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, 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 wear 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 taking direct aim at the president but said he personally wears a mask “not only because I want to protect others and to 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, frequently wash their hands, and wear face coverings in public spaces.
But Pence sidestepped questions about whether the president’s refusal to wear a mask and his large campaign gatherings were sending conflicting messages.
“Even in a health crisis, the American people don’t forfeit our constitutional rights,” Pence said.
More coronavirus coverage from Fortune:
- Why black-owned businesses were hit the hardest by the pandemic
- This was the most out-of-stock product on websites in May
- George Floyd protests, coronavirus face masks pose challenges for facial recognition
- The enduring history of health care inequality for black Americans
- E-book reading is booming during the coronavirus pandemic