OPINION: Why Have Masks Become Increasingly Politicized?


Elle Love

Despite evidence pointing to effectiveness of using masks to decrease the risk of transmitting COVID-19, the wearing of masks, or refusal to do so, has become a political statement. Graphic by Hailey Stessman/The Gateway

With the COVID-19 outbreak, masks and other facial coverings are in high demand due to several studies suggesting they lower the exposure of the virus to other people.

In a Missouri case study, two stylists working for a Missouri salon tested positive for the virus. Both stylists wore double-layer face coverings or surgical masks when seeing clients and more than 98% of clients wore a face covering, with 47% wearing cloth face coverings, 46% wearing surgical masks, and about 5% using N-95 respirators, according to the Morbidity and Mortality Rate Report (MMWR) published on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) website.

When volunteered customers were asked whether they came down with any respiratory symptoms in the same study, 84 percent reported they have not developed any symptoms of illness and all 67 interviewed customers tested negative for COVID-19.

There are also studies that have proved that wearing a face mask not only protects you, but others when interacting in public.

Normal speaking generates thousands of droplets that vary widely in size and may contain infectious virus particles, according to a New England Journal of Medicine article.

The article explained that, “whereas large droplets fall quickly to the ground, small droplets can dehydrate and linger as ‘droplet nuclei’ in the air, where they behave like an aerosol and thereby expand the spatial extent of emitted infectious particles.”

Given that there is strong scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of facial coverings, why is there a debate on whether or not people should wear them?

President Donald Trump said in an interview that he “had never been against masks” but “believed they had a time or a place” after previously stating that he would not wear a mask and made several public appearances not doing so.

Now, the president had a change of heart, suggesting supporters to wear a face mask when social distancing is not possible. “I don’t love wearing them either. Masks may be good, they may be just okay, or they may be great…My feeling is, we have nothing to lose.” Trump said in a press release.

However, the president’s actions to decline not wearing a face mask is ultimately what turned facial masks into a political issue. Conservative republicans are among the least likely to say they have worn a mask all or most of the time in the past months, with 49% saying they have done so compared to 60% of moderate republicans, according to the Pew Research Poll.

“He sends mixed messages, which is a trait of weak leadership,” said UNO Political Science Professor Paul Landow.

In the same poll, liberal democrats are the most likely to say they have worn masks, with 83% saying they wear a mask all or most of the time.

“Some political conservatives seem to be following the lead of President Trump, who is anti-mask.  But the majority of people are wearing masks, regardless of their political party,” Landow said.

Many Republican leaders, including Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, have ripped on mask mandates. During a Fox News Interview, Scott suggested that leaders “ought to stop mandating things” and “start just giving people good information.”

Gov. Pete Ricketts said in a press conference that “masks are one tool, but not the only tool.”

Ricketts encourages citizens to adopt mask wearing in their everyday life, but feels that a mandate will criminalize those who choose to not wear them.

“That heavy hand of the government is not, I believe, the best approach to get people to adopt wearing masks as part of their everyday life,” Ricketts said.

Landow says he doesn’t believe the idea of wearing a face mask should spark a political debate.

“Hiding behind personal freedom is a made-up excuse by Trump supporters,” Landow said. “The government tells us a lot of things we must or must not do include needing a driver’s license, needing vaccinations, and earning a building permit for a new house, and very few people resisted.”

However, as case numbers are rising, the partisan divide over masks is weakening with a broad-based increase in the number of people wearing them. 62% of Americans surveyed said that they are wearing a mask all the time when they leave the house, compared to 53% from the previous survey according to the Axios website.

With research showing that American citizens are now seeing mask-wearing as practical rather than political, Landow argues for politicians to do the same.

“All people should be working together to beat the virus, regardless of political party, Landow said. “There is no excuse for dragging politics into it.”