The Great Mask Battle of 2020

Our superhero stories are chock full of figures — some heroic, others villainous — that conceal their faces beyond a variety of colorful and exotic coverings. These masks can serve a functional role as a source of protection or sensory enhancement (see Iron Man). They can conceal an identity (Batman, Black Panther) or just hide a really ugly visage (poor Deadpool). Sometimes, they are just a style accessory that completes a look (see Captain America or Wonderwoman). These modern manifestations of superheroes are echoes of centuries of masked figures who live in our myths and legends.

It is remarkable, then, that this simple, familiar piece of equipment has become the source of such ideological battle lines during the persistent COVID-19 pandemic. The President has famously refused — until recently — to wear a mask, ignoring the advice of health experts. Many of Trump’s allies have lined up behind this notion to that point that yesterday the Governor of Georgia mandated that its localities could not mandate masks. (double negative anyone?). While there are real legal questions here about the ability of the government to enforce citizen compliance, it is unbelievable — as cases surge — that this has been perceived as the time to have that fight.

The data clearly show that masks have been accepted by a large majority of the population. The embattled and marginalized Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published an article this week highlighting that, in data from May, 76% of a national sample of adults were in favor of wearing masks. A recent Gallup poll showed that 72% of Americans (between June 29 and July 5) report “Always” or “Very Often” using a mask in public, and an increasing number of national retailers are requiring masks to be worn in their stores.

A deeper dive in the Gallup data shows the fault lines in this national momentum around mask-wearing. While 94% of Democrats and 69% of Independents report a high level of mask use, less than half (46%) of Republicans did, with a remarkable 27% of those who identify as Republicans stating that they “Never” wear a mask.

Meanwhile, the hard-earned progress in flattening the curve is being erased with spikes in cases, led by states with higher percentages of Republican-identifying residents. Arizona, Alabama, Florida, Texas and others lead the way with real consequences for real people. While limitations in mask wearing are not fully responsible for these spikes, human behavior in these settings — influenced by the policies and punditry of leaders — has put more people at risk, even to the point where hard-hit New York and New Jersey are mandating quarantine for arriving individuals from almost half of U.S. states.

We should continue to have a conversation about civil liberties, the role of government, and the breakdown of federal, state, and local responsibilities. These are important topics on which people can reasonably disagree. We absolutely should engage in dialogue to understand why different demographics within this country see things so dramatically different — even on issues with daily-updating line charts. However, now is not the time to usher in further catastrophe to make an ideological argument or try to score points for your team. Now is the time to take a lesson from our superheroes and don a mask in public — for our protection and for the protection of others. After all, “with great power, comes great responsibility”. We each have the power to act responsibly toward our fellow citizens, and we should — by wearing a mask for starters.

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