In early April, I did some essential shopping at a chain pharmacy in the exurban Georgia town where I have been more or less confined for over a month, thanks to family exposure to COVID-19. I was standing near the door, having already checked out, waiting for my wife to finish her shopping. We were both wearing surgical masks, having been assured that local medical personnel didn’t need them. The door opened and a large, older white man, most definitely sans mask, glared at me fiercely before heading toward the pharmacy department. A minute later, the door opened again and a younger white man with a holstered handgun displayed on his hip entered. Fortunately, he did not pay me any attention, and while I would have feared an imminent robbery had this specter of violence appeared in a store back home in California, this particular gun-toter was accompanied by two small children, reducing the odds of deadly force significantly. Over the course of the next ten minutes, multiple customers came through the door, none of whom were wearing masks; some gave me the fish-eye as well.
This experience surprised me a bit, since it happened in a community that was an early COVID-19 hot spot. But it also occurred to me that some in this deeply conservative area might regard mask-wearing as effete, or as a surrender of autonomy, or as something Asian. More recently, though, as protests against coronavirus lockdowns have spread in similarly conservative parts of the country, I’ve begun to realize that wearing or not wearing masks has become a political act, as the Washington Post explained over the weekend:
Even as governors, mayors and the federal government urge or require Americans to wear masks in stores, transit systems and other public spaces to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, the nation is divided about whether to comply. And it is divided in painfully familiar ways — by politics and by attitudes about government power and individual choice.
It’s no secret that the more stringent lockdown orders have come in urban jurisdictions with (usually) Democratic or liberal leadership, and that many Republican governors have followed the president’s example with an at-best ambivalent attitude about coronavirus precautions. Trump’s position on masks — suggesting it’s a good practice that he will not himself follow — is typical, and it seems to have signaled to many of his fans that masks are for liberals:
For Trump’s supporters, declining to wear a mask is a visible way to demonstrate “that ‘I’m a Republican,’ or ‘I want businesses to start up again,’ or ‘I support the president,’ ” said Robert Kahn, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis who has studied Americans’ attitudes toward masks …
“Trump supporters, many of whom may live in less-populated red states, may currently know fewer people with covid, and may therefore minimize the threat,” said Robert Klitzman, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who specializes in bioethics. “They don’t want to wear masks — they may feel they are being imposed and are ‘un-American,’ perhaps something only people in the Far East do. The fact that wearing masks suggests that the virus is a real threat to them — despite what Trump has said — may further tip the balance against masks.”
I don’t know if politics, or more generally culture, is responsible for resistance to mask-wearing in Bartow County, Georgia, but it’s hard to separate these factors in any event. The county went for Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 76/21 margin in 2016, and for Brian Kemp against Stacey Abrams by a 76/23 margin in 2018. If the president told people here to wear masks and modeled that behavior himself, most people would comply, albeit with masks adorned with conservative insignia and slogans (if not local sports teams).
The conservative Republican leadership at every level of government in this part of Georgia has made local lockdowns less stringent and controversial than in some jurisdictions, so the kind of protests aimed at mandatory returns to normalcy seen in Michigan and Kentucky and Ohio and Idaho haven’t appeared just yet. But if and when they do, the treatment of mask-wearing as a political act will likely become more uniform and explicit, and glares of resentment in the pharmacy checkout line, even from six feet away, will become just another risk to calculate.