The Mask Wars: How Crippling Partisanship Slowed Progress

How did mask wearing become such a partisan issue? How has it, like dealing with Climate Change, become a “symbol” of the left when it is simply a protection against a deadly disease? The left will say It’s ALL TRUMP’S FAULT! That’s partly true. But the left has also used the mask as a symbol of “better than” and helped to push the conflict to the extreme. It didn’t have to be like this. Regardless of collective outrage and fury at Trump, that was no excuse to turn a simple mask into a weapon of war.

Let’s start at the beginning.

When COVID first broke out, people were discouraged from buying and wearing masks. This was said multiple times on multiple networks, like NPR. Partly it was because masks were needed for medical professionals who were running out and it was thought to be selfish to buy them, and partly because people used them as a false sense of security, fussed with them and touched their face, which easily spread the virus from unwashed hands. We were, at least at first, urged to practice social distancing more. Even if we wanted masks we were discouraged from buying them because they were needed for medical staff and supplies were dangerously.

By late February, Democrats, along with Republicans, were trying to quell panic. For his part, Trump had closed down travel from China (non-essential, trade ships still got through), and was in downplay mode. He claims he knew how bad it was but even the scientists didn’t really know by this point, not anywhere in the world. There was no discussion of wearing masks so Trump had not yet flown into full blown mask mocking mode yet.

Trump was holding rallies, Democrats were holding debates — people were out in force by the end of February. Here is Trump:

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Democrats were not reaching the panic point yet either. Here is Nancy Pelosi in late February urging people to continue to visit Chinatown in San Francisco, the reason being — the economy.

The first person in the US did not die until late February and all through March is when it became known to everyone we had a major panic on our hands. By this point, the virus had traveled to many states in the US and governors began reporting cases and deaths in Washington state.

Here is Nancy Pelosi on COVID in late February:

Here is Bernie Sanders on March 3rd, Super Tuesday.

Here is Joe Biden on March 10 at a rally — as you can see, neither he nor anyone else are wearing masks or practicing social distancing:

The next day, both Biden and Sanders halted their campaigns due to COVID panic. But even then, people were not yet wearing masks. Or even being told to. It wasn’t until the end of March and early April that the message about masks got through. This wasn’t just Trump, by the way, this was the CDC and the WHO.

Here is the first tweet about wearing masks but they were directed towards medical professionals at this point.

And Trump’s response:

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Early on, in March and April there was much confusion about whether the public should be wearing masks. Instead, we stayed at home and did not venture out until it was safe to do so. But out of fear people began making them at home for medical professionals.

This was happening in late March as panic began to set in. By March 27, 2020 the New York Times felt it necessary to warn people about mask wearing:

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By April 28, the CDC recommended wearing face masks. President Trump faced the public to talk about masks for the first time and said he was choosing not to wear them:

President Trump said on Friday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was urging all Americans to wear a mask when they leave their homes, but he immediately undercut the message by repeatedly calling the recommendation voluntary and saying that he would not wear one himself.

“With the masks, it is going to be a voluntary thing,” the president said at the beginning of the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House. “You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I am choosing not to do it. It may be good. It is only a recommendation, voluntary.”

At this point, because of opposition to Trump by the left, wearing a mask was a subtle form of protest against him and not wearing a mask was a subtle form of support for him.

The confusion continued regardless.

Here is an NPR story from April, 2020:

Among the reasons for reluctance on the part of some health agencies and places to urge mask wearing is the concern about the shortage of masks for medical workers. That’s why the World Health Organization has stayed consistent in its recommendation, Margaret Harris of its coronavirus response team told NPR. And that position is: yes to masks for health-care workers and people with symptoms, no for the general public.

WHO and other agencies have also raised concerns about the potential problems that could arise due to the wearing of a mask — for example, a false sense of security that would undermine other preventive measures or self-contamination from touching a contaminated mask.

But then as the narrative began to change:

Governments should not have downplayed the importance of face masks [as a protective measure for the public], says Leiyu Shi, who researches comparative health systems and health policy at Johns Hopkins University, “because it will make them [seem] very foolish when they change their stance. Again and again,” Shi says.

Right around April it was more or less accepted that people should be wearing masks as a protective measure. But the rules kept shifting — wear them inside, wear them outside? American citizens were sewing them at home, making masks because they were sold out everywhere. Did those masks even work? No one could get N-95 masks. If you did somehow get one, you were shamed for wearing them because they were supposed to be restricted to health care workers.

We were urged to stay indoors and when we had to go shopping we were instructed, inside and out, to stand six feet apart. By April 20, 2020 almost every state had issued a stay-at-home order, with still a few exceptions, all red states. It was already becoming a partisan issue.

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By early May, the mask protests were starting because we were already in lockdown. Here is a story on Michigan’s protests:

“I am increasingly concerned about the violent nature of the extreme comments that are being made around these organizations and groups that are coming together. The violent, racist extreme rhetoric that has already been connected to Thursday’s rally,” said Whitmer in response to threats being made against her.

She says the rhetoric could be avoided if Republican leadership in the legislature would step up and denounce it.

“I would appreciate it if others would do their part to try and lower the heat. If you chose to demonstrate I ask that you wear a mask and stay six feet apart from others,” said Whitmer.”

For his part, Trump actively supported the mask rebellions and kept urging the country to open too soon. That was putting governors in a dangerous position as they could not open their states too soon and they should not have been forced to do so by the President of the United States who seemed to be more worried about the economy than the public’s safety.

The left press was all over the mask rebellion. It was a story they could not resist because here were armed white militia — which played right into the idea that Trump supporters are all white supremacists with guns shouting in the faces of masked health care workers. Even though they represented a minority of activists on the right doing Trump’s bidding to pressure local governments to “open” the country, this is an election year and thus it became necessary to take sides. Trump took their side and the press took the opposite side.

On Twitter hundreds of videos were posted of people refusing to wear masks — sometimes having violent reactions to being asked or required to wear them. There was, at least online, a dividing line growing between the left and the right around mask wearing.

COVID cases began spiking in March and stay-at-home orders began to take place in various states. On March 16, Trump instructed people to avoid social gatherings of more than ten people — and he said restrictions would last until July or August and that the country could be headed into a recession.

Around 300 million Americans were in lockdown, on social media in an election year. It was bound to turn into a partisan war and it did. But it didn’t really turn into a full blown mask war until May 25, 2020 when the George Floyd protests exploded onto the streets.

Most were wearing masks but enough were not for people to wonder — if we’ve been told to social distance and wear masks and wash our hands to the extreme, if MSNBC and CNN had been non-stop COVID panic — why did it all suddenly go silent on the left?

Photos of some people not wearing masks at protests were plainly visible, not to be mention how close they were, how many fluids were flying back and forth .We had been instructed to wear not just masks but goggles or face shields because COVID can infect through the eyes. But very few people at the protests wore eye coverings. For months.

By now, Americans had been mostly following guidelines, give or take a shaming incident or two in Florida or at parties which were called “super spreader” events. But it was becoming plainly clear: the left were mask shaming the right and the right was becoming defensive about wearing masks. At least that’s how it seemed on social media, and as we know, that isn’t a reliable barometer.

But we do know that seeing millions of people on the street had a psychological impact on those still locked down. It was both a release for those who had been trapped in their homes and it was a visual signal that now we could all go outside as long as we wore masks. Large group gatherings were okay because otherwise surely people would not be allowed to protest.

No one could stop the protesters but the the strangest part of it was how the press simply did not cover the protests as potential spreaders for COVID. No one made speeches to caution protesters. No one addressed it at all — they switched their focus almost completely to police brutality and systemic racism. That held for some time until COVID began to rise again.

Reports that no COVID spikes could be attributed to protests in various cities only told part of what went down. The press was quick to reassure Americans that the protests did not cause spikes. But Americans could see with their own eyes how many people were on the streets in all 50 states. Someone was lying. Either the doctors and their many warnings were lying or the press was now lying because something wasn’t adding up.

By June, USA Today finally got around to warning the public.

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Many people in America felt they were being gaslighted. A few people outside the mainstream were discussing this on podcasts but the mainstream press would not touch it for fear of being called racist or in somehow criticizing the protests which were deemed necessary and important. To the right it looked like the left only cared about masks and social distancing as a way to shame them, and the left continued to justify the protests by saying they were outdoors and most were wearing masks.

Moreover, during contact tracing in New York, people were not allowed to ask whether they’d attended a protest. So how could anyone know whether the protests impacted COVID spread? It’s true there were no spikes afterwards in New York but within two weeks of the protests — which also happened on Memorial Day weekend and people really did feel like the spell had been broken. If everyone was out on the streets why shouldn’t they be? No one would dare shame the protesters so how could the argument be made that only some people should be allowed out in large gatherings and others not?

Here is a tracker of COVID spread, which plainly shows how it dipped and weeks later spiked again:

Here is Sam Harris on the credibility problem over this disconnect between before May 25 and after:

Trust in institutions has totally broken down. We’ve been under a very precarious quarantine for more than 3 months, which almost the entire medical profession has insisted is necessary. Doctors and public health officials have castigated people on the political Right for protesting this lockdown. People have been unable to be with their loved ones in their last hours of life. They’ve been unable to hold funerals for them. But now we have doctors and public officials by the thousands, signing open letters, making public statements, saying it’s fine to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the largest protests our nation has ever seen. The degree to which this has undermined confidence in public health messaging is hard to exaggerate. Whatever your politics, this has been just a mortifying piece of hypocrisy. Especially so, because the pandemic has been hitting the African American community hardest of all. How many people will die because of these protests? It’s a totally rational question to ask, but the question itself is taboo now.

So, it seems to me that almost everything appears upside down at the moment.

At this point, out of necessity, because how to rationalize it otherwise, the symbol of whether one cared about COVID spread or not became the mask. Democrats were wearing them, Republicans still sort of mocked wearing them, at least that was how it was interpreted by the media and social media. Polls continued to show that most Americans wore masks.

There is no doubt, and no excuse, for how long it took Trump to start urging people to wear them and in fact dangerously held a rally indoors in an attempt to prematurely “open” the country.

Finally in July Trump stood up for wearing masks:

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When Trump’s entire inner circle all got COVID it was because they’d become way too complacent with mask wearing. Trump’s insistence that it not be mandatory was wrong. Trump turning it into some kind of “macho man” test was wrong and likely got Herman Cain killed. It is as simple as you can get: wearing a mask does the minimum to protect yourself and others from getting COVID.

On the flip side, the left’s absolute confidence in masks as the ultimate symbol of caring about who gets COVID and who doesn’t doesn’t comport with reality. There were people at the Rose Garden event, for instance, who were wearing masks and still got COVID. If one person who has it isn’t wearing a mask — and honestly, even if they are and they do not wash their hands and they touch things other people touch — those other people can get COVID. You can also get it in your eyes if someone sneezes and it goes into your eyes, which is why goggles have always been recommended.

It remains absolutely absurd to believe that wearing a mask will protect YOU. It protects others from YOU. But not wearing one is always going to be worse than wearing one, unless you are outdoors and nowhere near other human beings.

The good news is that, if you look at the polls, most Americans outside the hysteria bubbles of left and right continue wearing masks. I personally drove from Los Angeles to New York and back to Los Angeles and stayed in motels all along the way and visited stores and restaurants and 90% of the people I saw, in red states and in blue, were wearing masks. I came upon a small percentage who weren’t and who looked at me kind of funny because I was.

The bottom line is that the masks revealed how partisanship in our country has prevented us from uniting at a time when we really needed to come together to work as a team. In an election year especially, everyone was forced to pick a side. To the Democrats COVID was their one big chance to finally bring down a one term president with a strong economy. To the Republicans, they were not going down without a fight and unfortunately, their weapon of choice, at least at first, became the mask. Hopefully now they have come around and will continue to take this disease seriously.

The virus right now is less dangerous than it was at the beginning, and sooner or later we’re going to have to get back to business or else our country really will go under. The best way to do this is to make sure everyone wears a mask, preferably a face shield and to wash your hands frequently. Not to mention social distancing. If we all follow the rules we can beat it. If we don’t, it will beat us.

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