Public health experts say wearing face masks or coverings is critical to America gaining control of its worsening coronavirus epidemic, but mask-wearing mandates have been met with resistance from some Americans and officials—and led to ongoing clashes in these three battlegrounds.
Research suggests mask wearing helps to curb coronavirus' spread
At the start of the global coronavirus pandemic, some public health experts and officials were hesitant to recommend widespread use of face masks to curb the virus' spread, because they believed the new coronavirus primarily spread through physical contact with virus particles on surfaces and through large respiratory droplets typically emitted by coughing or sneezing. Officials and experts also were concerned that recommended widespread use of masks could lead to shortages of needed personal protective equipment for health care workers.
However, as the coronavirus quickly spread throughout the world, evidence increasingly suggested the virus transmits through both large and small respiratory droplets, including small droplets that can collect in the air. Further, research showed that infected individuals could spread the coronavirus even if they weren't experiencing symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
But multiple studies have found that wearing face masks or coverings can help stem the new coronavirus' spread. For example, a CDC report published Tuesday found that mask wearing prevented almost 140 people from contracting the new coronavirus at a hair salon in Missouri.
Mask mandates gain steam
In light of the mounting evidence supporting mask wearing, as well as the recent resurgence in America's coronavirus epidemic, many public health experts and officials are now calling on nearly all Americans to wear masks whenever they're out in public—and particularly in instances when physical distancing isn't possible.
Last week, CDC Director Robert Redfield during in an interview with JAMA said that, if every American wore a mask while they were out in public, the country could get its coronavirus epidemic "under control" within one to two months.
Similarly, HHS' Assistant Secretary for Health Adm. Brett Giroir on Thursday said getting every American to wear a mask while in public, along with closing indoor bars, would be "as good as" reimplementing stay-at-home orders for curbing the new coronavirus' spread.
The calls have prompted state and local leaders, businesses, and more to implement so-called "mask mandates" requiring their residents, staff, and consumers to wear face masks or coverings in certain instances—but not without receiving pushback from Americans and some public officials who oppose the mandates. And increasingly, those clashes are playing out in three battlegrounds.
3 battlegrounds for mask mandates
As states and localities consider whether to reopen schools amid the coronavirus epidemic, requiring students to wear masks if schools do reopen has become a central part of the debate.
In Utah, for example, Gov. Gary Herbert (R) has called for schools to reopen this fall and mandated that students must wear masks while at school. Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee in a letter has asked Herbert to rescind the mask mandate, but Commissioner Tanner Ainge has spoken out against Lee's request, saying masks are needed to protect children from the new coronavirus while attending school.
According to ABC News, "tensions" over the mandate "flared" during a public hearing on Lee's letter held last week, where a large number of parents packed the hearing room while not wearing face masks or observing physical distancing guidelines. Some parents booed Utah County officials, and some carried signs condemning face masks.
Meanwhile, in Illinois, the state's attorney general on Thursday "took the unusual step … of preemptively filing a lawsuit" that aims to get court approval of an order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) to require schoolchildren, teachers, and other staff to wear face masks during the upcoming school year, the Associated Press reports. And although no one had filed a lawsuit challenging Pritzker's order as of Thursday, one public school district and two private schools had told the Illinois State Board of Education that they believe Pritzker doesn't have authority to issue the order and would institute their own safety requirements, the AP reports.
Meanwhile, in California, the Orange County Board of Education has approved recommendations to allow students back to school without physical distancing requirements in classrooms or requiring mask wearing—a move that was met with backlash from both parents and teachers.
"It is, frankly, politically driven," Gina Clayton-Tarvin, president of the Ocean View School District Board, said. "It's reckless and it's causing undue fear among teachers, students, and parents alike, for no other reason than to wind people up."
Resistance to mask mandates also has been bubbling up at retailers throughout the country, as many have begun requiring their staff and customers to wear masks.
Several major retailers—including Apple, Costco, CVS Health, Best Buy, Kroger, Panera Bread, Starbucks, Target, Walgreens, and Walmart—have mandated all of their shoppers and staff to wear masks while inside their locations. Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said, "Without universal mask mandates that are fully enforced nationwide, hundreds of thousands of Americans will continue to get sick and die."
But getting customers to adhere to mask mandates in stores has proven challenging in some areas, with some workers reporting that confronting shoppers who aren't wearing masks is difficult, awkward, and potentially dangerous. In May, a security guard at a Family Dollar was killed while trying to enforce the store's mask requirements.
Shilo Barrett, a shift supervisor at a Starbucks in Los Angeles, said she's had customers storm out of the store when she's told them they need to wear a mask.
Anthony Pasqualone, who works at a Starbucks in New Jersey, said customers often ignore him when he tells them about the company's mask requirement, but one customer screamed at Pasqualone and then urinated in the store after the customer was told that the store's bathrooms were closed due to safety measures implemented because of the coronavirus epidemic.
3. State and local governments
Mask mandates also are causing tension between local, state, and federal officials.
As new coronavirus cases continue to spike throughout the country, many states and localities have begun implementing mandates that require residents to wear face masks while out in public. As of Thursday, a total of 28 states and the District of Columbia had issued mandates requiring mask wearing in public spaces. And dozens of localities have issued similar mandates—although one such mandate, issued in Atlanta, has put the city at odds with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R).
Kemp on Wednesday issued an executive order prohibiting local governments in Georgia from establishing mandatory mask-wearing policies, though he said state residents are "strongly encouraged to wear face coverings as practicable." And on Thursday, Kemp filed a lawsuit against the Atlanta City Council and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) contesting Lance Bottoms' order requiring people in Atlanta to wear face masks in public spaces and barring gatherings of more than 10 people in public areas. Kemp's lawsuit claims that the governor alone "leads" Georgia "against the worldwide novel coronavirus/Covid-19 pandemic" and has the authority "to suspend municipal orders that are contradictory to any state law or to [Kemp's] executive orders."
Kemp in a tweet posted Thursday wrote that he filed the lawsuit "on behalf of the Atlanta business owners and their hardworking employees who are struggling to survive during these difficult times," adding that local officials are "shutter[ing] businesses and undermin[ing] economic growth" under Lance Bottoms' order.
Lance Bottoms in a tweet posted Thursday wrote that 3,104 deaths in Georgia have been linked to the coronavirus, and she criticized Kemp's use of state funding to pursue the lawsuit. "A better use of taxpayer money would be to expand testing and contact tracing," she wrote.
Similarly, in Louisiana, state Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) last week issued an opinion stating that, although the state's mask mandate recently issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) may benefit public safety, Landry believes the mandate violates residents' constitutional rights.
And in Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) on Wednesday became the first governor to announce testing positive for the new coronavirus, yet he indicated that he doesn't think the federal or state governments should issue mask mandates. "I know that some businesses are mandating masks and that's great. But you can't pick and choose what freedoms you're going to give people. So if the businesses want to do it, if some local municipalities want to do it, that's fine. But again, we also respect people's rights to stay home if they want, to run their businesses, or to not wear a mask."
But on the federal level, although the Trump administration hasn't issued any mandates requiring mask wearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has called on Congress to amend an upcoming coronavirus relief bill to preclude states that do not implement mask mandates from receiving funding under the measure.
"My hope has been that other governors would show the leadership to institute their own mask mandates, but so far that hasn't happened," Feinstein said. "It's time for Congress to step in. This is a matter of life or death, and partisan politics shouldn't play a role" (Mervosh et. al., New York Times, 7/16; Witte, Washington Post, 7/16; Feuer, CNBC, 7/16; Lopez, Vox, 7/15; Wu, New York Times, 7/14; Pereira, ABC News, 7/16; O'Connor, AP/ABC7Chicago, 7/17; Do et. al., Los Angeles Times, 7/15; Tyko, USA Today, 7/16; Bhattarai, Washington Post, 7/8; Stracqualursi/LeBlanc, CNN, 7/16; Calfas/Siddiqui, Wall Street Journal, 7/16; Hellmann, The Hill, 7/16; Bowden, The Hill, 7/16; Fernandez, Axios, 7/17; Stracqualursi, CNN, 7/15; WWL, 7/15).