It’s been roughly five months since the United States was first introduced to a novel coronavirus, which would become commonly known as COVID-19 — the name of the disease caused by the virus.
Since then, a health crisis not seen in more than a century has become more and more politicized.
American cities and states have been forced to grapple with a constant unknown — exactly when this virus is going to spike or subside, leaving businesses, lawmakers and residents to approach each situation in one of two ways: with caution or defiance.
Experts say U.S. President Donald Trump has turned the simple mitigation effort into a divisive political football, volleying back-and-forth on whether or not he thinks Americans should wear a mask while remaining steadfast in his inability to wear one in public.
“The fact that Trump is not wearing a mask fits his coalition beautifully,” says Larry Sabato, Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “They’re strongly anti-government. They’re opposed to rules from on high,” Sabato added, who noted that to Trump’s male supporters, “this is a question of machismo. Are they manly enough to go out without a mask on?”
Health experts fear the act of turning a potentially life-saving effort, like wearing a face-covering, into a political matter can lead to confusion in the general public.
“It makes people feel (that) if they put a mask on, potentially they are defying the president,” said Sara Bleich, a public health policy professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Trump has said in the past that people who wear a mask could be doing so just to “signal disapproval” of him, but then changed his tune during an interview with Fox Business when he proclaimed he’s “all for masks.” Trump also admitted he would wear a mask in a small group setting.
To date, Donald Trump has never been in front of a camera with a face-covering.
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“If he were to do that simple thing, it would really encourage people to actually do the right thing,” said Bleich, echoing a comment from Lamar Alexander, a Republican and chair of the Senate Committee on Health, who said, “it would help if from time-to-time the president would wear one to help us get rid of this political debate.”
In the early weeks and months of this pandemic, masks were nearly non-existent during press briefings involving the president. Things started to change as the country experienced a significant second outbreak during this first wave. Lawmakers, notably Republicans, began to cover their faces when in public.
The break in ranks within the GOP has left Trump as the odd man out, at a time when he needs as much public support as he can get. The 2020 election is fast approaching, and polls have put Democratic front-runner Joe Biden upwards of 10 points ahead of Trump.
Biden has repeatedly been seen wearing a mask but faces a firestorm of insults and comments for doing so, including in late May when he wore a black face-covering while attending a Memorial Day ceremony. That led to a comment from Trump that his political rival looked “unusual,” adding “he was standing outside with his wife, perfect conditions, perfect weather. They’re inside, they don’t wear masks.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has urged Americans to “wear cloth face coverings in public settings,” saying it prevents spread “especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
There’s a strong party-line divide when it comes to wearing a mask in the United States. One study shows that more than seven in 10 Democrats (or 70 per cent) admit to wearing a mask when outdoors or in stores, compared to just 56 per cent of Republicans.
“It’s very concerning that something like a mask has somehow become an ideological partisan symbol instead of what it is, which is it literally saves your life,” said Dr. Leana Wen, former public health commissioner for the City of Baltimore.
Concern has now prompted several states and municipalities, including some with Republican leaders, to implement a mask policy. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been seen in public with a face covering, has told all cities in his state that are reporting at least 20 cases to make masks mandatory. Heavily populated tourist areas including Myrtle Beach and Knoxville, Tenn., have also put similar policies in place.
No federal mandate exists in the United States to wear a mask; it is simply recommended by leading public health experts, including the surgeon general. That can muddy any effort to ensure public safety is a number one priority.