Nils Hase, a retiree who lives in Tarpon Springs, Florida, is wearing a mask and loading his Home Depot haul into his car on a recent weekday afternoon. In the store, because Home Depot insists customers and staff across the country wear masks, most faces were covered. But out here in the parking lot, in a state with a serious infection rate but no mask mandate, plenty of those masks hang down around people’s chins.
“It bothers me. They are being defiant,” Hase said. “And most of the people I see that walk in without a mask are just looking for a fight. They are asking you to ‘Just ask me. Just give me a reason to yell at you.’ I just stay away from them and keep on with my own life.”
Six and a half months after President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus emergency, COVID-19 has killed more than 207,000 Americans and infected 7.3 million, now including Trump himself and the first lady.
Scientists are warning of a larger wave of infection this winter. They agree the simplest, easiest way to fight that surge is to get most people to wear masks most of the time.
Yet the political fight over face coverings rages. It plays out on city streets, in suburban grocery stores, in rural sheriff’s offices and at the highest echelons of government — all the way to the presidential debate stage this week in Cleveland. There, most of Trump’s contingent refused to wear required masks, and one of them tested positive soon afterward. Only time will tell if they spread the infection, but their behavior is mirrored across the nation.
Hefty Price in Iowa
In April, Iowa health officials cut an agreement with Iowa University to do modeling on the impact of coronavirus. Among the data are estimates of future death rates and the projection that more than a thousand Iowans could be saved by adopting a universal mask policy.
Later that month, the researchers warned Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds not to ease restrictions aimed at curtailing the virus, saying a spike would result later in the year. They also recommended a strong policy on facial coverings, producing a report that said face shields would dramatically lower the virus’s toll.
Reynolds took none of that advice. She started easing restrictions in late April. She argued it was more important to reopen the state’s economy while encouraging people to be responsible and wear masks than to throw down a mandate she called unenforceable.
“I think the goal is to strongly encourage and recommend that people wear them,” she said in late August. “I believe that people are.”
Yet at that moment, Iowa was proving the university’s predictions true, suffering the highest infection rate in the nation. In late September, the state was one of only seven that remained in the “red zone,” averaging more than 890 new infections a day.
The governor’s intransigence on masks highlights a troubling problem. At a time when experts believe the nation needs to unite around a strategy to curb a potentially catastrophic winter, the cheapest, best option — masks — have become increasingly politicized. Even Republicans like Reynolds, who agree masks work, refuse to take the advice of their experts. They oppose mandates and favor an educational approach that many people actively resist.
Dissent Within the Trump Administration
The trouble starts at the top. The Trump administration’s leading medical advisers have testified repeatedly that masks were the country’s best tool to blunt a second wave that could be significantly deadlier than the initial spike.
Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, went as far to say face coverings were a more certain bet than a vaccine if everyone would wear them.
“If we did it for six, eight, 10, 12 weeks, we’d bring this pandemic under control,” Redfield said during a Sept. 16 hearing. “They are our best defense.”
Trump contradicted him before the day was done, and just a few days earlier, as the president and his coterie did in Cleveland, Trump modeled exactly the opposite behavior. At a campaign rally of thousands in Nevada, he cheered on the mostly maskless crowd. The next day, he held a massive mask-optional indoor rally at a warehouse in Henderson, Nevada, defying state restrictions. He advised the owner (who was later fined $3,000) that he’d protect the man if the state went after him.
“I’ll be with you all the way. Don’t worry about a thing,” Trump said.
But Trump’s actions and statements are worrisome for scientists and public health experts. They have watched in horror and frustration as the president’s dismissive attitude toward masks and COVID-19 itself has gone hand in hand with growing politicization of the public health response.
Meanwhile, the White House Coronavirus Task Force, led by Vice President Mike Pence, issued a “state report” on Montana on Sept. 20 that included the suggestion that the state “consider fines for violations of face mask mandates in high transmission areas.” At a press conference, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, said fining people would not be “the Montana way.” The state is, however, one of 34 with a mask mandate in place.
Indeed, the single-strongest predictor of whether or not a state will mandate strong mask policies bears little relationship to a state’s disease problem, according to a recent study by a team at the University of Washington.
After analyzing comprehensive data on mask policies, researchers led by Chris Adolph, a professor of political science and statistics, found that having a Republican governor would predict a 30-day delay in recommending mask policies. In a state that is also ideologically conservative, the delay would be closer to 40 days. A state’s death rate or infection rate had a much weaker influence.
“Because mask mandates are far less costly than business closures or stay-at-home orders, when we started to monitor these policies in April, we hoped their adoption would be universal,” Adolph said. “Instead, we found the same pattern: Republican governors resisted mandating masks even when public health conditions called for them.”
Adolph’s research suggests Trump is at least amplifying disdain for masks and, in fact, the phenomenon has been playing out across the country, most strikingly among some of Trump’s most ardent supporters — law enforcement and extremely conservative politicians.
In Washington state, Florida and even Democratic California, sheriffs made headlines by taking actions in opposition to local masking guidelines.
In Washington’s Snohomish County, where the first case of COVID-19 was discovered in the United States, Sheriff Adam Fortney declared in an April Facebook post: “The impacts of COVID 19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights.”
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee ordered people to wear masks in public in late June, just as a summer-long rise of infections began. Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza responded by telling a cheering crowd outside a church, “Don’t be a sheep.” Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer on the radio called Inslee “an idiot” over the order.
In Florida, anti-mask resistance has been especially fierce. Again, sheriffs offered the most startling opposition. One, Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods, banned masks for his deputies and visitors to the sheriff’s department offices, though he later relented on visitors.
Even in solid-blue Los Angeles County, the sheriff’s office was reprimanded by the county inspector general because deputies refused to wear masks, in violation of public health orders.
Surprisingly, officials there who support masks were disinclined to push tough enforcement.
“One of the things in all of this is we’re not going to enforce or fine our way out of this,” L.A.’s top public health official, Dr. Muntu Davis, told reporters recently.
Researchers disagree with Davis and Reynolds, not because education doesn’t work, but because it takes a long, sustained effort.
“Developing and deploying health education programs takes time, so in emergencies where rapid compliance is essential for reducing the spread of a novel pathogen, mandates are a critical element,” said Adolph.
Tickets in Tennessee
That’s the path officials took in Nashville, Tennessee, though initially officers opted for a more lenient approach than the mayor wanted. They had to be forced to write tickets with a potential fine of $50. The police still mostly have been giving warnings — thousands on any given weekend — but they’ve also written dozens of tickets and made some arrests.
City officials credit the crackdown with curbing COVID-19, even as it ran rampant in rural Tennessee counties where there are no mask mandates. In late September, Nashville’s Davidson County had 13.5 cases per 100,000 people, while more than three dozen less populous counties had “red zone” infection rates, with more than 25 cases per 100,000 people.
Amid the conflicting messages, including where enforcement has worked, not everyone is convinced that covering your nose and mouth is something that should rise to the level of police.
“I think they have better things to do than force anybody to wear a mask,” said Jennifer Johnson, an X-ray tech in downtown Nashville. “I think it should be at your own risk, but that’s just my opinion.”
Lawsuits Plus Weekly Protests in Florida
Plenty of conservative-leaning citizens and lawmakers agree with her, to the point of suing to block mandates.
In Hillsborough County, Florida, home to Tampa, county commissioners must vote each week to renew a state of emergency that requires masks to be worn in indoor public places.
Jason Kimball, a regular speaker at those meetings opposing the order, grew so angry he started a GoFundMe campaign for a lawsuit. He hit his $5,000 goal in 24 hours.
“You can only do so much as a commission legally, without violating the state constitution and the United States Constitution,” Kimball said at a recent meeting.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a state lawmaker who has filed 15 similar lawsuits on behalf of others all over the state, took the case. He claims mask ordinances are an overreach by government and a violation of Florida’s privacy clause.
“The government has never done this before,” Sabatini said. “It’s never told people that they have to wear masks everywhere they go all day long, and that’s basically what it’s come to.”
A judge dismissed Sabatini’s case in Hillsborough County and several of his other lawsuits have been denied.
Like Kimball and many other mask opponents, Sabatini insists masks don’t work, saying anyone can Google it to find out.
Scientists beg to differ, and are distressed political ideology has trumped real data and made it impossible for science to dictate the best responses.
“That’s certainly been a source of frustration for those of us who work in public health,” said Joe Cavanaugh, who runs the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health and helped build the modeling distributed to Gov. Reynolds.
Watching Other Countries Succeed
Dr. Ali Mokdad, a former outbreak scientist at the CDC who works for the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, finds it especially painful to watch other countries deal with the pandemic better than the United States.
He traveled the globe to stop outbreaks, and now other countries are using the methods he and his former colleagues at the CDC taught them.
“Why aren’t people wearing a mask? For the first time in our history, of humankind, we have a measure that is really very cheap,” he said. “You can make it at home yourself from something old you have. It saves lives. It saves the economy.”
It is doubly frustrating — and alarming — because while mask adoption had been rising over the summer, it’s recently begun to slip. The shift caused IHME to adjust upward its model of how many people would get infected and die by Jan. 1 in the United States.
“This change in the last week is due mainly to the decline in masks and the increase in mobility,” Mokdad said.
The death rate estimate has since moderated — projected this week at 372,000.
One place where mask use has declined is Iowa, where Mokdad said only 28% of people say in surveys they are always likely to wear a mask when they go out.
Scientists at the University of Iowa had been using data similar to what IHME uses for its coronavirus models. The state won’t let the university make its modeling public, but when some of its data was online, the projection was that Iowa would see more than 1,000 deaths by the end of August if no additional safety steps were taken. As of Tuesday, the state’s official toll was 1,328.
By IHME’s most recent similar estimates, more than 3,400 Iowans will die by Jan. 1. With a universal mask requirement, some 1,600 could be saved. Nationally, nearly 115,000 lives could be spared.
Winter Is Coming
Cavanaugh would welcome even a toothless mandate to spare some of those lives. “Just sending that message at the state level is, I think, an important step in emphasizing the importance of it,” said the University of Iowa researcher.
Sixteen states still do not have a mandate, all of them led by Republicans.
The especially frightening element to the anti-mask movement is that it can only worsen what scientists already warn is going to be a bad winter.
When it’s cold, the virus can survive longer on surfaces, and people are stuck indoors where it can become more concentrated in the aerosolized droplets people exhale.
“We’ve seen it in our data. We’ve seen it in other countries,” Mokdad said. “It’s very strong, and it’s going to happen in the U.S., unfortunately.”
Back in Florida, Nils Hase will keep wearing his mask.
“I’ve always believed in the science behind it,” Hase said. “It’s a virus and we need to be aware of what’s going on. People who don’t, they’re just idiots.”
This story is from a reporting partnership that includes Health News Florida, KPCC, Nashville Public Radio, KHN and NPR.