Opinion: The Great American Mask War
By Chris Finnie
As I write this article, the official U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is more than 120,000. Though the daily national death toll is slightly lower than last month, there are still areas of the country where it continues to rise. In California, we’ve reached a stubborn plateau that we don’t seem to be able to quash.
It’s Not Over
But people are eager for various health restrictions to be over. Doctors are less sure that this is a good idea. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute, says, “We flattened the curve, and then we lost interest. It’s understandable that people want to be done with it. But the virus is not done with us.”
Private Desires vs. Public Health
During lockdowns, many viewed the change in lifestyle as an act of love for their community. There seemed to be a widespread understanding that they were not only protecting themselves, but those around them.
Surveys show that the majority of people in the U.S. still feel that way. But an increasingly vocal minority do not. They tell reporters that it’s their life to risk if they want to—though most seem not to believe the risk is real, despite the death toll.
Again, doctors tell us that’s not the way a pandemic works. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says, “When you’re dealing with infectious diseases, a small percentage of people who don’t comply can have an impact on the entire population.”
A Piece of Cloth Becomes a Big Deal
A recent study from Germany found that face masks reduced the daily growth rate of reported infections by around 40%. Another study concluded that “wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission.” The CDC recommends them. So public health officers and public officials started mandating masks.
The blowback was immediate and intense. Politicians threatened retribution for officials who implemented them—some showing a shocking lack of knowledge on the subject. Orange County California Board of Supervisors Chairwoman, Michelle Steel, said the county health officer should loosen the requirement that all residents wear masks when in public. “I think our residents in Orange County are very smart. If they feel sick, they’re going to wear a mask. It doesn’t really have to be mandatory.” But infected people can spread this virus before they develop symptoms, or even if they never do.
Protesters showed up outside the home of Contra Costa County’s public health officer. Health officials in Alameda and San Diego were also targeted. A full-page ad published in The Mercury News blasted Santa Clara County health officer Dr. Sara Cody. Under pressure from both county supervisors and the public, Orange County Chief Health Officer Dr. Nichole Quick resigned.
Four other health officers in California have resigned or retired in the last two months—in Nevada, San Benito, Yolo, and Butte counties—as have two public health department directors in San Bernardino and Orange counties
Cruz County supervisors in late May briefly shut down a public meeting about reopening when a restaurant owner approaching a microphone veered toward the county’s health officer.
With all this going on, California governor Gavin Newsom announced that Californians will now be required to wear masks, saying, “Simply put, we are seeing too many people with faces uncovered—putting at risk the real progress we have made in fighting the disease.” “Science shows that face coverings and masks work,” said the governor. “They are critical to keeping those who are around you safe, keeping businesses open, and restarting our economy.”
It’s Not About You
Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and a professor of public health and pediatrics at Columbia University, put it well: “People are seeing this as a personal decision, and it’s based on our own personal risk tolerance. That’s not public health, because in public health, your risk should not be my risk.”
I make masks. I wear masks. I’ve heard the complaints. And here’s what I have to say: Wear a cotton mask. They’re cooler and work better. Look for one with space between the mask and your mouth. That makes it easier to breathe. One with a nose piece of some kind will help keep your mask on and your glasses clear.
Do it because you care about the rest of us.
Chris Finnie has lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains for 25 years. She’s worked as a marketing copywriter for more than 35 years. And has been a local, state, and national political activist for 17 years. She has contributed articles and columns to several local newspapers.