After waiting hours for his turn to speak to the Montgomery City Council on June 16, pulmonologist Dr. William Saliski spoke slowly and in basic terms about what he had seen on the novel coronavirus front lines in his hospital in an area hit harder than any other in Alabama.
He described emergency units overrun with COVID-19 patients, roughly 90-percent of whom were Black, and warned that if the spread continued, “we will be overrun.”
He offered a simple partial solution: the council should pass the ordinance it was considering to require people to wear masks in public.
“This mask slows that down,” Saliski said while waving a piece of fabric. “Ninety-five percent protection. Something as easy as this cloth.”
But the doctor was met with skepticism, including from a councilman who suggested that to order Montgomery residents to wear masks would be to “throw our constitutional rights out the window.”
Saliski and other doctors stormed out of the meeting in disgust after the council members voted mostly along racial lines—Black members for the mandate and white members against it—and the ordinance failed.
Such combative scenes have increasingly become the norm in parts of the United States, especially as the virus has taken hold in more conservative regions in the South and West. Face masks or coverings of the sort recommended by top health officials to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus have become an unlikely focus of partisanship and racial division, leading to mass refusals to wear them or mandate their use even as government leaders have pushed to reopen the economy.
Local officials voting to require face masks in public have faced lawsuits and have been shouted down by their constituents. Law enforcement leaders have refused to enforce face mask mandates. There have been mask burnings and protests, including one demonstration in which an Arizona council member mimicked victims of police abuse by declaring: “I can’t breathe.”
And as some right-leaning Americans have called masks a tool of oppression, Democratic conspiracy, and even sacrilege, a new genre of viral cell phone video has popped up, featuring verbal or physical scuffles centering on people refusing to cover their faces in Costco, Trader Joe’s, or other public places. Shoppers irate about masks have vandalized a store display and spat on a 7-11 counter upon being asked to put on one, and one man pulled a gun because a fellow shopper refused to wear one.
For public health experts, the fissure over masks is yet another unwelcome headache in a battle against the novel coronavirus. With more than 3 million confirmed cases of the virus and upwards of 134,000 deaths, the United States has been by far the world’s hardest-hit nation.
“If we’re going to move on we’ve got to get everybody on the same page,” said Dr. Glen Nowak, a University of Georgia professor who previously ran media relations and communications at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ”Because if we don’t, we’re going to be dealing with this divisiveness for a long time.”
According to Dr. Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago in New Zealand, many western nations that do not have a history of mask-wearing during virus outbreaks have experienced some doubt about the practice’s efficacy.
But Baker said that no other country’s citizens have taken such a willful stance against masks, and that international health officials have been particularly stunned that American leaders at the highest levels have done relatively little to urge mask-wearing, and at times have even seemed to belittle it.
“This idea that you’re going to make a political statement by infecting people around you just seems absolutely outrageous to me and I think to most people who think about it,” Baker said. “Why would you do that? Why would you encourage that behavior?”
Baker said the dissent against masks has coupled dangerously with the American rush to reopen businesses even as infection cases reach record levels.
“Not endorsing mask use and also encouraging the country to get back to work just seems like a terrible contradiction because, actually, mass masking would be one of the best tools for helping a country get back to work and it’s cheap and effective,” Baker said. “You’re just creating this perfect storm for yourselves in the U.S. by doing that.”
Nowak said that American distrust of masks was partly the fault of poor messaging by his former agency, the CDC. The agency initially discouraged healthy Americans from wearing masks, in part to prevent hoarding that could’ve deprived medical professionals of personal protective equipment.
When further research prompted the CDC in April to recommend that nearly every American wear a face covering outside when around other people, Nowak said, the agency billed it as a way of keeping others safe.
That was the wrong message for a portion of the population, Nowak said. He said officials would have had more success with “messages that resonated with other parts of the population, such as, ‘If you wear a mask it gives you the freedom to do other things because we’re reducing the spread of COVID-19.’”
The CDC did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
The experts interviewed by USA TODAY said that despite early misgivings by the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) about the protection offered by wearing masks, there is now significant evidence that the practice slows the spread of the virus.
Though there has been speculation that mask-wearing during widespread police brutality protests prevented novel coronavirus numbers from spiking in those cities, Nowak cautioned that it’s “probably impossible to take public events and draw inferences in terms of masks” and the resulting infection numbers.
President Trump has been the country’s most visible waffler on the societal value of wearing a mask. Trump has said “I’m all for masks,” and favorably compared his appearance in one to that of the Lone Ranger. But he’s shown disdain for them at other times, mocking rival presidential candidate Joe Biden for appearing publicly in a mask and saying that he declined to wear one because he didn’t want to give members of the media “the pleasure” of seeing it on him.
There were few masks worn among supporters packed closely together at Trump’s recent large gatherings in Tulsa, Oklahoma—which was followed by a rise in novel coronavirus cases there that the city’s health director said were “more than likely” a result of the rally—and in front of Mount Rushmore.
Trump also yanked his Republican convention speech from Charlotte, North Carolina, reportedly after officials there wouldn’t budge on requiring masks and social distancing, choosing to accept his party’s nomination in an arena in Jacksonville, Florida, instead.
Before Trump’s upcoming rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire-- which was planned for Saturday but has been postponed due to a tropical storm-- residents have called for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu or Mayor Rick Becksted to mandate mask-wearing, but both have resisted. In a statement, Becksted suggested that to mandate masks would be to “politicize this important health issue.”
Only a few months ago, it would have been difficult to conceive of a thin layer of protective fabric across one’s nose and mouth as a partisan or racially-divided accessory. But in recent weeks there has been no stronger symbol of American in-fighting in the path of the novel coronavirus than the face mask.
When commissioners in Palm Beach County, Florida, mandated face masks in public, an irate crowd of constituents—who weren’t wearing masks—jeered them for trampling the U.S. Constitution. “Residents do not take it lightly when arbitrary and capricious rules are forced down their throats for the greater good,” declared one constituent, who collected 900 signatures against the mandate.
In Wisconsin, a surge of novel coronavirus cases has prompted Gov. Tony Evers to reverse his previous position and consider implementing a statewide mask mandate. But Evers seemed to consider it a futile gesture, saying that he expected the mandate to be challenged, and defeated, in court.
Josh Guillory, the mayor of Lafayette, Louisiana, said that he found the high novel coronavirus numbers “alarming” but refused to join other major cities in the state by requiring masks. “I’m not a king, and I’m definitely not a wizard where I can just press a button and say, ‘Masks!’ And everybody’s cured,” Guillory said.
Other officials have taken an even more aggressive stance against protective face coverings. Ohio State Rep. Nino Vitale, who has declared that masks obscure “the image and likeness of God,” has attempted in vain to stymie Gov. Mike DeWine’s mask requirement in several counties in the state.
On Tuesday, DeWine’s mandate prompted Vitale to advise his constituents against an even more basic health measure, writing on Facebook: "Are you tired of living in a dictatorship yet? This is what happens when people go crazy and get tested. STOP GETTING TESTED!"
In the same state, Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones said that Ohioans were sick of the government telling them what to do and that he would not enforce DeWine’s mandate. “I’ve got a lot of important things to do and being the mask police is not one of them,” Jones said.
Saliski, the pulmonologist who argued in favor of a mask ordinance in Montgomery last month, later said he had thought that his plea was a “slam dunk” and a “no-brainer.”
Among residents who spoke in favor of the Montgomery ordinance was William Boyd, who said he had lost six family members to COVID-19. Noting the virus’s prevalence among the Black population, Boyd said: "The question on the table is whether Black lives matter,"
But successful opposition to the proposal was led by councilman Brantley Lyons, who called it a constitutional breach and said that “to make somebody do something or require somebody to wear something is an overreach.”
On Tuesday, Saliski—wearing his white lab coat and a facial expression of masked wrath—tried again at another meeting. "You guys were voted in to protect your constituents," he told the Montgomery council members. "Damn it, protect them!"
This time, the council was apparently swayed, voting 7-0 to pass a mask mandate in the city.
Councilman Lyons, after parrying with Saliski over “literature” he said he read that called into question the efficacy of masks, abstained from voting.
Cincinnati Enquirer reporters Hannah K. Sparling and Jessie Balmert, Lafayette Daily Advertiser reporter Andrew Capps, and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Molly Beck and Mary Spicuzza contributed.