Many Americans say it's 'their right' not to wear a mask. Experts say it's a 'threat' to the country.

Korin Miller
·5 min read

Wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has become a controversial topic in the U.S., with some people even resorting to violence over it. Now one report has discovered why mask requirements are such a sticking point for some: They think these mandates infringe on their rights as Americans.

The report, which was released by the Brookings Institution on Monday, surveyed nearly 5,900 Americans between early June and early July about their mask usage in public. The researchers discovered that 20 percent of those who participated in the survey were not wearing masks in public to stop the spread of the virus, despite state mask mandates or recommendations.

Of that group, 40 percent who don’t wear a mask say it’s because it’s “their right as an American to not wear a mask,” while 24 percent say they don’t wear a mask “because it is uncomfortable.”

It’s worth noting that 18 percent of those who don’t wear a mask say it’s because “they do not have access to a mask,” 11 percent say they think the virus is a conspiracy, and 7 percent do not wear a mask because they’re concerned about being viewed as a criminal, with 67 percent of men of color who don’t wear a mask citing the latter reason.

The report also found that 64 percent of Americans believe that their right to not have to wear a mask or scarf over their face is more important than reducing the likelihood of contracting the virus or spreading it to others.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people wear masks every time they’re in public and when they’re around people who don’t live in your household. Mask usage is required by law in 34 states and the District of Columbia, according to AARP.

Brookings did find that 12 percent more people are wearing masks compared with the last time it surveyed Americans on their mask use (in mid- to late April), but there is still a sizable part of the population that is resistant to the practice. “This is an important finding that suggests the core principal of individualism in American culture is leading to significant health consequences across the country,” the report reads.

Public health experts are concerned about the results.

“People who claim it’s their right to avoid wearing a mask are misunderstanding rights,” Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “You don’t have a right to infect other people.”

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life that “some people just don’t understand the concept of living together in a society. When we live in a society, there are certain limits to personal freedom.”

In the case of communicable diseases like the coronavirus, “what you decide regarding your own risks of health extend beyond you,” Schaffner says. “If you want to eat three hamburgers with mayonnaise for lunch, that’s entirely between you and your arteries,” he says. “But when you elect not to wear a mask, that affects people around you as well as yourself.”

“Under normal circumstances, individualism doesn’t have too much impact on public health. But people need to better understand the pandemic is different,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life.

Data suggests that wearing masks can make a difference. In Japan, for example, where mask compliance is high and a normal part of the culture, the number of COVID-19 cases has been low. While mask wearing could be a factor, Adalja says it’s difficult to draw a direct association between masks and case counts, noting that “it’s hard to tease those things apart.”

Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life that arguing that mask mandates infringe on human rights is simply “inconsiderate of others and a threat to the health of our country.”

If more people regularly wore masks, along with practicing other known methods of preventing the spread of the pandemic, “you would be able to get more control of the virus,” Adalja says. How much, though, is unclear, he says. However, modeling research has suggested that, when 80 percent of a population wears masks, there can be a “significant impact” on the virus’s ability to spread.

“If everyone wore masks all the time for four weeks, we would be done with this mess,” Russo says. “Of course, that’s impossible to do, but even wearing masks more regularly would be helpful. While we’re waiting for a vaccine, this is the best we can do.”

But experts recognize that more mask compliance is probably not going to happen.

“Unfortunately, a segment of the population is never going to decide to wear masks,” Watkins says. “These people either don’t understand basic science or don’t care about others.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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