A Winn-Dixie storefront in South Carolina.
Of all the public health measures enacted to reduce the spread of coronavirus, in the U.S. at least, the wearing of masks has proven to be the most politically and culturally explosive. One recent example was the sudden reversal of Deep South supermarket chain Winn-Dixie earlier this week from a no-mask stance, stating it was a “highly charged issue with our customers,” to joining other supermarket chains like Walmart and Costco in requiring face masks.
As food reporter Laura Reiley of the Washington Post noted, the about-face came hours after President Donald Trump tweeted a picture of himself with a mask and called mask-wearing patriotic. Phil Lempert, editor of SupermarketGuru.com, told the Post that the earlier no-mask policy at Winn-Dixie was a dog whistle of sorts, meant to align the company with the values and political stance of its customers.
Winn-Dixie’s see-sawing on masks is representative of America’s cultural war over masks, where anti-mask protests have erupted from California to Texas to New Jersey and elsewhere across the country, asserting that any such mandate infringes on citizens’ personal freedom. At times the anti-mask fervor has become violent, with employees who tried to impose the mask requirement being attacked by irate customers, even fatally, as at a Michigan Family Dollar store.
Trump’s recent tweet of himself wearing a mask, after long downplaying the importance of mask-wearing in the fight against the pandemic, may signal a lessening of these tensions. The U.S. Surgeon-General Jerome Adams this week told the conservative audience at Fox and Friends, “I’m pleading with your viewers. I’m begging you. Please understand that we are not trying to take away your freedoms when we say, ‘Wear a mask,’” CNN reported. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, applauded the president’s support of masks on NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday, stating, “I think we’ve turned the corner on the road of a consistent message.”
The latest scientific data bears out the effectiveness of masks in curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Earlier this month, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington forecast 45,000 fewer deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. by Nov. 1 if at least 95 percent of people wear masks in public. Scientists from IHME told NPR that the latest analysis shows that wearing cloth masks could reduce transmission by 30 percent.
While a federal mask mandate seems unlikely given the current position of the White House, many states; businesses like retailers Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Gap; airlines; and, recently, the Marriott Hotels have not hesitated to enact their own mask requirements. While Marriott required employees to wear masks for several months, now guests must wear masks in lobbies and public spaces as well.
The anti-mask sentiment might be red-hot in the U.S., as seen with Winn-Dixie, but it’s also being felt elsewhere in the world. In the United Kingdom, Brits remain reluctant to wear face masks, despite having the highest coronavirus death toll in Europe. And France, which this week made masks mandatory in all enclosed public spaces amid fresh outbreaks, has experienced its own backlash against masks, with a group of passengers beating to death a French bus driver who asked them to wear masks.
The sentiment against masks is not without historical precedent. The Anti-Mask League of 1919 was formed in San Francisco following the outbreak of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and hundreds of “mask slackers” were arrested after failing to comply with the law. Echoing some of the sentiments heard today, the League members believed the masks were unsanitary, useless and a threat to their constitutional rights, Business Insider reported.
Those 1919 anti-maskers eventually won a repeal of the mask-wearing mandate, but San Francisco became one of the worst-hit cities in the U.S., with 45,000 residents infected and more than 3,000 deaths. The hope among infectious disease specialists and other proponents of mask wearing as an important tool in the fight against coronavirus is that, this time, history won’t repeat itself.
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Image credit: Ryan Ketterman/Wiki Commons
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.