Why the mask culture wars may never end

·National Correspondent
·11 min read

WASHINGTON — You can wear a mask inside Fiddleheads Café, but it will cost you. “$5 added to orders placed while wearing a face mask,” reads a sign pasted on a window of the restaurant, located in the Northern California town of Mendocino.

On the other side of the country, at the Middle Eastern restaurant Little Sesame in downtown Washington, D.C., there is also a sign greeting visitors. “No mask, no hummus,” that sign declares.

Little Seasons in Washington, DC. (Alexander Nazaryan/Yahoo News)
Little Sesame in Washington, D.C. (Alexander Nazaryan/Yahoo News)

Culture wars have a funny way of sneaking up on America. The NRA was once a sedate club of gun enthusiasts. Some conservative Christians initially supported the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal nationwide. Eighteen months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that a strip of fabric was about to become the most contentious topic of public discourse, the stuff of presidential politics and “Saturday Night Live” sketches. That some people would burn masks in protest, while others wore $465 silken face coverings from the Beverly Hills boutique House of Bijan.

Yet here we are.

Fiddleheads owner Chris Castleman told Yahoo News that a recent count of passersby yielded a 90 percent rate of masking outdoors. He estimates that about 1 out of 3 drivers he sees driving past his restaurant is still wearing a mask.

“It’s a psychological thing,” Castleman said. “I don’t think they will ever go away completely.”

And neither will the mask culture wars.

That masks are sticking around is incontrovertible. The longer they stick around, the more likely they become part of the post-pandemic normal as opposed to merely a quirk of post-pandemic life. New York City’s popular Shakespeare in the Park festival will be back this year, but with a mask requirement in place, despite the fact that people sitting outdoors quietly are highly unlikely to spread the coronavirus. Children don’t generally contract or spread the coronavirus either, but many will begin the 2021-22 school year wearing masks. For them in particular, masking could become a regular habit, even as some have maintained that making children wear masks is a form of cruelty.

Protesters at a rally asking for a change in mask policy in schools on May 26, 2021 in Hauppauge, New York.  (Raychel Brightman/Newsday RM via Getty Images)
People in Hauppauge, N.Y., on May 26 protesting mask policies in schools. (Raychel Brightman/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

Masks have been divisive from the start, and even though the pandemic appears to be nearing its end in much of the United States, mask-related divisions remain as wide as ever. Those divisions could persist for months to come, or even for years, given the tremendous passions these flimsy little objects have continued to excite.

“Because masks have been so politicized, I think the battle will be ongoing,” Dr. Lucy McBride, a pediatrician in Washington, D.C., told Yahoo News. “For some people, masks symbolize oppression; for others, they signify the ability to control the uncontrollable.”

Masking did not immediately emerge as a culture war issue, but it is doubtless here to stay. Conservative media outlets have been criticizing Dr. Anthony Fauci for days because an email from February 2020 seemed to have him saying that masks don’t really work.

The claim — that Fauci knew masks were ineffective — is false because it erases a crucial context: Everyone was uncertain about what masks were for and who was supposed to wear them and where. Fauci was merely reflecting scientific opinion, the uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic, when the mask was forged as a symbol of either sound science and citizenship or, on the other hand, government overconfidence and overreach.

That wouldn’t have been obvious in March 2020, when lockdowns first went into effect. It wasn’t until early April that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy put in place the nation’s first state-level mask mandate. By then, the coronavirus had been spreading across the country for four months.

An activist holds a surgical mask during a protest of a visit by first lady Jill Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at a nearby vaccine clinic at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, Sunday, June 6, 2021. (Craig Ruttle/AP)
An activist protests a visit by first lady Jill Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood on Sunday. (Craig Ruttle/AP)

Much of the early pandemic response had been marked by what has come to be deemed, not very kindly, “hygiene theater.” People thought the virus could be spread via surfaces. They had been told that was how it spread, so they acted accordingly. Things were made “touchless.” Hand sanitizer became a prized possession. Songs about proper handwashing technique went viral. If all this seems silly now, well, it certainly didn’t seem silly then.

At the same time, scientists were increasingly convinced that the virus spreads almost exclusively by air, not through surface-based particles called fomites. And the clearer that became, the clearer it became to public health officials like Fauci that hand sanitizer was not going to win this game. Masks were.

So suddenly the mask became a symbol of taking the pandemic seriously, of listening to the science, of being a responsible citizen who does not want to get fellow citizens sick. Which is why images of a maskless Nancy Pelosi or John Kerry always made news. They made politicians seem like hypocrites, in particular because those had been the very same politicians who had been touting masks.

Progressives may concede that the science has evolved and that just as many Democrats have been letdowns in this pandemic as Republicans. Maybe the messaging could have been clearer, this argument goes. Outside masking mandates could have been lifted. Something should have been decided about children in masks. But on this one issue they tend to be blunt, and to side with Maryland’s Gov. Larry Hogan, himself very much a Republican: “It’s not that hard, just wear a damn mask.”

Former President Donald Trump was the nation’s premier mask skeptic, while President Biden has been criticized for masking too assiduously, even for months after he was vaccinated. In that sense, the mask is also a symbol of the contentious 2020 campaign, of Trump defiantly holding rallies and mocking Biden for masking, while Biden videocast from his home in Delaware. One side urged a return to normal, while the other side endorsed business lockdowns and school closures.

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a protective mask during the first U.S. presidential debate hosted by Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Then-President Donald Trump holds a mask during the first presidential debate in September 2020. (Kevin Dietsch/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At bottom, the debate about masks is a debate about views on social accountability and individual freedom. Those views are deeply held, which is why mask-related confrontations have been so heated.

Those confrontations continue, as a recent trip to a pool in Rockville, Md., vividly demonstrated. Two fathers watched their children taking lessons when one confronted the other because he was not wearing a mask. The unmasked father explained that he was vaccinated. Seeming to take some offense, the masked father said he was vaccinated too, but that pool rules on masking were pretty unambiguous and had been for months (the fathers presumably did not know that a nearby Yahoo News reporter was following their exchange).

The unmasked father shrugged off the complaint and went back to watching his child swim. The father who’d confronted him rose and went to find another seat.

That people will continue to wear masks is all but certain, at least for the foreseeable future. For one thing, there are 10 million people in the United States with immune disorders that make vaccination less effective. Then there are young children, who won’t be eligible for vaccination until late 2021 at the earliest. Then there are people like Amber Elby, a novelist based in Austin, Texas. “As long as I have cute Disney fabric, I’m going to keep making and wearing masks,” she recently tweeted. Some women have said they might continue to mask up to avoid catcalls and other harassment from men.

A person wears a face mask outside McDonald's on the Upper West Side on May 28, 2021 in New York City. On May 19, all pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, venue capacities and restaurant curfews were lifted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)
A man wearing a mask in Manhattan on May 28, about a week after all pandemic restrictions in New York, including mask mandates, were lifted. (Noam Galai/Getty Images)

To be sure, masks are unlikely to be as prevalent as they were during the worst days of the pandemic. But they are also unlikely to go the way of face shields, which disappeared from most everyday settings because they could be awkward to wear, but even more important, were ineffective. Masks are the opposite in terms of efficaciousness, so much so that in 2020, the then director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, said masks offered better protection than a vaccine.

That “vaccine” also offers protection — in a kind of bonus — to every other common airborne pathogen that might sicken a person. Of which there are many. In many East Asian countries, masking against seasonal illness was normal before the coronavirus pandemic. The same could now become true in the United States. Fauci, the top science adviser to the Biden administration, has predicted that masks could become a “seasonal” mainstay, returning with the cold weather and the respiratory disease it brings.

“I can tell you that next winter, when I’m in crowded areas like taking public transportation, I, myself, will probably wear a mask so I can prevent not just COVID but other respiratory illnesses as well,” an infectious disease expert at the Mount Sinai Medical Health System in New York recently told the Washington Post.

“I have a hard time predicting the future on this one,” said Andrew Hartman, a historian at Illinois State University and author of “A War for the Soul of America,” a chronicle of the nation’s culture wars. But, he added, “I could see it persisting. It has all the dynamics of a culture war issue.”

Travelers wearing protective face masks arrive at Orlando International Airport on the Friday before Memorial Day. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Travelers at Orlando International Airport on the Friday before Memorial Day. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

All great culture war issues are psychological as much as they are political. They fire up the moral imagination, turning otherwise ordinary people into fierce partisans. Nor is the magnitude of those passions necessarily tied to real-world developments and trends. The nation’s abortion rate has been dropping for years, but few cultural issues so readily animate conservatives and progressives alike.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told Yahoo News that she thinks masks will stick around, in some form, “for a long time,” perhaps the next two years. They won’t be mandated again, she said, but that could only exacerbate matters, pitting people who want to keep wearing masks against those who see them as a pointless virtue signal. Heavy-handed though they may have been, government mandates took pressure off individuals.

Now that the mandates are gone or going, individuals have to negotiate the fraught dynamics of wearing (or not wearing) a mask, as the exchange between the two swim dads in Rockville showed. The irony is that 63.5 percent of Americans over the age of 18 in the United States are vaccinated, among the highest rates in the world. Critics of masking have wondered why some of the same people who were eager to see the vaccine distributed are also eager to keep wearing masks.

“They claim to be pro-science, but when the science informs them of something different than what they believe, they don’t want to adjust,” said Castleman, the Mendocino restaurant owner. “They,” in this case, are all the people in his community who had installed lawn signs about how science is real and facts matter. When the science on outdoor transmission came in, some of them decided that the science wasn’t quite real enough just yet.

A mother walks with her daughter wearing face masks in Chicago's Henry C. Palmisano Nature Park, Friday, June 4, 2021. (Shafkat Anowar/AP)
A mother and daughter in Chicago’s Henry C. Palmisano Nature Park on June 4. (Shafkat Anowar/AP)

Yes, continuing to wear a mask may defy science, but it also defies those who never took science seriously in the first place or those who demonized masks from the very start. Keeping the mask on can serve as a recognition that we’ve been through something dark and serious, something that no amount of summertime hedonism is going to efface.

“I’ll wear them as long as I want. True of masks, true of my oldest shirts,” recently tweeted the NPR culture critic Linda Holmes. Twitter is both an echo chamber and a gladiator pen, but the reactions to her tweet were nevertheless telling. “I can’t imagine getting on the subway without one….ever again,” writer Jen A. Miller responded.

Liberals don’t want to forget the pandemic because they don’t want to forget all the racial and economic inequalities it exposed, the politicians it showed to be selfish or foolish, the institutions it revealed to be broken. A recent column for Vice, the news outlet popular among millennials, argued that people were still wearing masks because they were “traumatized.”

That’s precisely the sentiment that infuriates conservatives, who think the harms of the pandemic have been overstated. That’s not to say they don’t believe that the pandemic was real or that it killed thousands of people. Rather, they argue that the economic and psychological effects of locking up were too great. The fervor of Tucker Carlson’s anti-mask diatribe in late April was a sign of just how deeply masks are associated with the caution-first approach to the pandemic — and just how deeply that approach bothers some.

It could take years to fully litigate the pandemic from its many cultural and political angles. The wounds of cultural grievance run deep on both sides, and they are likely to remain even after businesses pull down mask-related fliers once and for all.

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