While there’s still a lot we don’t know about the coronavirus, we’ve learned a few key facts since it hit the U.S. early this year. Chief among them is that, according to the CDC and most medical experts, masks are extremely effective in protecting against the disease when worn correctly. They create a physical barrier to virus-carrying respiratory droplets, so when you are in close proximity to someone else, your mask protects them and their mask protects you. This is particularly important because asymptomatic spread of coronavirus is disturbingly common, and experts say masking is crucial when social distancing is impossible.
Most Americans seem to have gotten the message. Pew Research reported in August that 85% of those surveyed wore masks in stores and other businesses, up from 65% in June. A National Geographic poll from October found that 92% of Americans surveyed always or sometimes wore a mask when leaving the house. With coronavirus cases on the rise practically everywhere in the U.S., and the Thanksgiving holiday posing potential outbreak risks, experts are practically begging us to take precautions, which include forgoing large celebrations, social distancing when possible, and, yes, wearing a mask.
Still, there are holdouts, particularly among supporters of President Donald Trump, who is not one for wearing masks despite having had COVID-19 himself. Anti-mask groups can be found in abundance on Facebook, where their many members are very vocal about their beliefs and refusal to wear a mask — including to us.
“I only wear a mask at work and the stores I know will enforce the mandate,” April Hendriksen, 21, who lives in the Salt Lake City area and works as a janitor at the Salt Lake City Airport, told Refinery29. “Even then, I keep it off my nose. Mathematically, there's no reason to wear a mask. Additionally, this has been proven to not work at all. We've all been wearing masks for almost a year now, and the virus still spreads.”
Instead, anti-maskers often mentioned the need for herd immunity, something that Trump has talked about many times, once calling it “herd mentality.” But herd immunity can only be achieved with vaccines or with over 70% of the population becoming infected and then recovering, according to the Mayo Clinic. Meanwhile, the road to herd immunity means the kind of high infection rate that could lead to an even more catastrophic amount of deaths, long-term complications, and a tremendous burden on an already overwhelmed healthcare system. And yet that’s not enough to convince diehard anti-maskers.
“If there’s absolutely no way to get out of wearing a mask, I’ll put one on,” Heather, a 41-year-old from Houma, LA, who works for a delivery service called Waitr and has five kids ages three to 15, told Refinery29. “But I will pull it off once I enter the facility. I’ve done it to just be able to walk in. This is a free country and I’m exercising my rights to choose not to mask or make my family mask up. If people feel the need to mask up, by all means do so. If I could fight the school system on it, I would. That’s the only time my kids will wear one.”
Heather added that she also doesn’t wear a mask when she is working, and that, although the company requires it, no one has ever said anything. While she’s never been in a confrontation about it, some people have given her “dirty looks.”
Ramona Russum, 51, a gallery attendant at the Dallas Museum of Art who lives in Irving, TX, thinks similarly. “I don't wear a mask because I feel that it needs to be a choice, not mandated,” Russum told Refinery29. “[And] that I know what is best for my health and not the government; that God has given me a brain to know how to take care of myself. I wear one at work and my whole body feels horrible for six hours. It affects my job performance and I feel that I could do a better job without a mask. I don't think the government should be in control of our lives and health.” She said wearing a mask has given her panic attacks and affected her mental health, and that lockdowns and social distancing have had the same effect.
It’s important to note that there is nothing illegal or unconstitutional about state or federal mask mandates, and 38 states now require masks in public. Even many Republican governors have gotten on board with their effectiveness. "Masks do not negatively affect our economy, and wearing them is the easiest way to slow the spread of the virus," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in a recent address. "We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer. Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom." Besides, mask mandates are not permanent measures designed to get people to love wearing masks. Rather, they are temporary measures to protect yourself and others. Still, some people see the piece of cloth as government overreach.
“I am not okay with the government forcing me to wear a mask,” Patrick Hayes, 41, a plumber in Grand Junction, CO, told Refinery29. “If the government wanted to force everyone to carry a handgun to make society safer, you know, protect your neighbour… I would fight against it. It's not your responsibility to protect me, and I don't think you should be forced to do it.”
Hayes does, though, number among the many people who at least seem to agree that masking up could help protect vulnerable populations who are statistically at much higher risk of death or serious illness from COVID-19. “I am happy to wear a mask for anyone who asks,” Hayes said. “I’ve worn a mask when I have a customer who is elderly or infirm and they ask me to. I love my customers and I would stand on my head in their living room if they asked me to.”
And while she is not personally concerned about getting COVID, Heather said, “If you’re vulnerable and want to mask up, fine. I have family members who are elderly and have health problems and I recommend them masking up.” Hendriksen said she thinks vulnerable populations would be safer if we “shifted all of our protection efforts from the demographics in our society that are statistically safe, to protect the demographics at risk.”
None of the other people who spoke with us seemed too concerned about contracting the virus themselves, either. But when they spoke about their fearlessness in the face of COVID, they didn’t sound pragmatic so much as fatalistic.
“I'm not worried about things I can't do anything about,” Russum said. “I can't control the flu or getting hit by a bus, either. Should I never get in a car again because I might get into a car accident?”
“I think if you’re bound to get COVID, you will regardless if you wear a mask or not,” Heather said. “I know people who have recovered from COVID and, sadly, some who didn’t. Does that change my mind on masking up? Absolutely not.”
“If the virus cannot be eliminated, won’t everyone catch it sooner or later?” said Hayes.
Hendriksen said both her parents are infected with COVID, but that they are “fine” and “it's not much worse for them compared to the usual flu they both get at this time of year.” She said she continues going about her life and socialising with friends. “There’s hardly a reason to be afraid,” she said. “The only reason I worry about becoming infected is that it would put me out of work for two weeks due to the social stigma around the virus.”
Social stigma or not, more than 250,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., with deaths spiking during the month of November, reaching over 1,000 on many days. Plus, the number of U.S. cases has surpassed 12 million, with approximately 1 million new cases each week this month. Many parts of the country have run out of ICU beds and even morgue space. That sounds like plenty of reason to stop going about your life as usual — and take all the precautions you can to protect yourself and others.