By Melba Newsome

Around Charlotte, sports columnist and broadcaster Ryan “Bowser” McGee is a bit of a celebrity, best known as a NASCAR and college football reporter and host of the weekly Marty & McGee podcast on ESPN Radio and the SEC Network. His link to these two high testosterone sports hasn’t protected him from harassment and mockery, however. In early May, McGee said he had twice been publicly ridiculed since the pandemic began–once as a snowflake and another as a sissy. What earned him such derision? He wore a face mask in public.

McGee, confused as to how and why wearing a mask became so controversial, took to Twitter to push back against the guy who confronted him in a parking lot.

“I know my reasons for wearing a mask are way better than whatever convinced him to leave the house in those blue Crocs he had on,” he tweeted.

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As the number of coronavirus infections across the state exploded, on June 24, Gov.Cooper pushed pause on moving to Phase 3 of North Carolina’s reopening plan. He also issued an executive order making face masks mandatory statewide.

If the response on social media is any indication, these measures will only lead to more acrimony and division.

Betsey Cuervo Tilson, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services state health director, asked residents for their forbearance and compliance on social media. “North Carolinians – we need you! Best thing we can all do to open our economy – simply wear a mask when you are out. Easy. Low cost. Together we can slow the spread of this pandemic, protect our loved ones, and get back to work and school,” she tweeted.

The thread was soon flooded with angry responses. “I will not comply,” tweeted @aminicorp. @whitewolf2226 dubbed masks “a handcuff of tyranny.”

America’s new fault line

Workplaces have long enforced dress codes and most restaurants require shoes and a shirt for service–all with little or no pushback. But wearing a mask or not has become a political Rorschach test. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 89 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of independents report wearing a mask every time or most of the time when they leave home, compared with 58 percent of Republicans.

Closer to home, last week, Public Policy Polling found eight in 10 North Carolinians thought it was “important for people to wear masks, including 64 percent who say it’s ‘very important.’” Those numbers were bipartisan, 94 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of independents, and 62 percent of Republicans agreeing that public masking was important.

The solution is more difficult and the stakes are even greater when battle lines are drawn among members of the same household.

Throughout much of their 15-year-marriage H and R have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum, a gulf that has grown wider in recent years. But their political disagreements had little impact on their day-to-day lives before the coronavirus pandemic. These are no longer academic disagreements, but matters of life and death.

Despite working from home since the lockdown, H follows CDC guidelines. R is an essential worker who frequently interacts with others during the day. He believes COVID-19 isn’t a serious threat and the fears are overblown.

He won’t wear a mask or practice social distancing.

“As times goes on, he’s become way more contrary. I cannot wrap my brain about his logic anymore. A lot of it just seems out of resentment,” explains H, who asked not to use their names in this story. “Our daughter wears a mask and he just refuses. He’ll throw up these ridiculous excuses, talking about his freedom. There’s just so much anger.”

H is beyond distressed. She believes R’s indifference cancels out her efforts and heightens the risk of infection for her and their 12-year-old daughter.

And she is absolutely right, said William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “If you’re living in the same dwelling, and you’re being observant and somebody else is not, then you have a much more acute problem,” said Schaffner. “You have to have some kind of sit down discussion and come to some kind of accommodation.”

Science versus rumor

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended Americans wear a face covering in places where it is difficult to maintain an appropriate distance in early March, research has continued to find that masks can greatly limit the transmission of the coronavirus.

A recent study conducted by Texas A&M concluded that masks prevented 66,000 infections in New York City in less than a month. “Our results clearly show that airborne transmission via respiratory aerosols represents the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19,” said lead author Renyi Zhang, professor of atmospheric sciences.

“We conclude that wearing a face mask in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent inter-human transmission.”

Yet, a segment of the population remains opposed, arguing that masks are not only ineffective but dangerous. One widely-circulated claim alleges wearing a mask causes oxygen deficiency and possibly even death. The video screed, Plandemic, loaded with conspiracy theories and misinformation about the coronavirus, also asserted that wearing a mask “literally activates your own virus.”

The viral video garnered more than 8 million views before being removed from YouTube and Facebook.

The politics and psychology of non-compliance

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been reluctant or outright refused to wear masks in public, sending a strong message to supporters to follow suit. At Trump’s most recent public events in Tulsa and Phoenix, thousands of maskless adherents huddled close together for hours, seemingly as a show of loyalty.

David Abrams, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the NYU School of Global Public Health, said that in times of heightened uncertainty, mask wars may also be about a sense of belonging.

“Those who don’t wear masks may feel a sense of solidarity, and those that do likely regard it as an act of altruism and a way of helping each other out,” he said.

Richard McAnulty, associate professor of psychological science at UNC Charlotte, has researched the psychology of non-compliance with health directives. He says a common reaction to danger or risk is denial, which can take the form of minimizing the threat, one’s own vulnerability or even dismissing the threat altogether. It’s a way to assert control over uncertain situations.

“People estimate the probability of risk—and decide the odds outweigh probable danger,” said McAnulty. “In contrast, the probability of enjoying social connections with family and friends seems high.

“The likelihood of exposure to the threat seems low and distant compared to that of having fun.”

Mitigating family risk

As social and work restrictions ease, even families who take the virus seriously struggle to mitigate the risk in their households. Eleven-year-old twins Bridget and Christopher Dougherty have been diagnosed with and hospitalized for reactive airway disease (RAD), a condition similar to asthma that causes breathing difficulty. Their respiratory issues make them particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus and their parents, Anita Blanchard and Dave Dougherty, particularly nervous.

Mitigating their risk is hardly easy, however. Blanchard, an associate professor at UNC Charlotte, has been working from home since the campus closed in March but, as head of human resources for a senior living facility, Daugherty works around those most at-risk of infection every day.

a family of five - two boys and one young girl - pose with Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles
Dave Dougherty, Anita Blanchard, Conor Dougherty, Christopher Dougherty and Bridget Dougherty pose with Charlotte mayor Vi Lyles.

“Dave usually doesn’t leave his office, all meetings have employees in masks and he doesn’t shop now–ever,” said Blanchard.

David L. Katz, a physician and president of True Health Initiative, explains that, in any multi-risk household, all residents should behave in a way to accommodate the person with the highest risk.

“We’re talking about mild precautions to minimize the dose exposure,” said Katz. “If you’ve got somebody who’s 70-plus living in your house and they’ve got diabetes, and you’re not being at all careful about where you go, what you do, or what precautions you take and then you go home and interact with them as we’re not in a pandemic, you’re playing with fire.”

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Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer with more than 20 years' experience reporting on news and features. Her feature credits in many prominent publications including the New York Times, Bloomberg...

One reply on “Mask Wars: PPE is the new political fault line”

  1. Interesting Post! Vital information for living in the new “normal”

    With the new information provided by WHO, stating that the COVID-19 virus could be airborne in certain conditions, wearing facemasks at all times is now essential for personal safety and the safety of others.
    Cotton facemasks are the most comfortable option during these times. They are skin-friendly, reusable, and can be comfortably worn for long durations.

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