The coronavirus pandemic's uniquely dire impact on issues related to health, security and the economy is politicizing anything it touches. The face mask in America is a malleable scapegoat, a moving target to point at, either in praise or condemnation. It's long been thought of as tradition in other countries, but America is undoubtedly once again a face mask nation. Now approximately a century after masks played a potentially life-saving role in American culture, the face mask still has the potential to divide as much as it does to protect.
Because as society has radically changed in just a few months, the meaning of wearing a mask has changed with it. This presents a new host of problems for the laws, ordinances and social norms associated with the face mask.
As society has radically changed in just a few months, the meaning of wearing a mask has changed with it.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the labyrinth of laws on wearing masks in public was already being called into question by activists and privacy advocates. While a number of states have laws on the books against masks — and legislation continues to be introduced addressing the issue — there is now an effort to get officials to pull back on actually enforcing them, as was the case recently in both Alabama and Georgia. Washington, D.C., has an anti-mask law butpermitted a group of white nationalists to demonstrate while covering their faces in February.
These laws stem from the mask's relationship with police, especially during the violent protests that have flared up following the rise of the far-right. While masked protestors are often decried as cowards by their detractors, it will be fascinating to see how these arguments play out in a society where covering one's face in public is no longer unusual. Publications such as the National Review were pushing hard for new anti-mask laws in Portland last year; no word on where such critics stand on the issue now. Conservative activist Andy Ngo's upcoming book on antifa breathlessly titled "Unmasked" doesn't really have the same meaning in 2020.
Whether during a protest or pandemic, however, the role of law enforcement remains complex. As the crisis worsened, police in Spain passed out masks to transit passengers not already wearing them. In Philadelphia, a man was violently yanked off a city bus for not wearing a mask, while two black men in a Walmart were followed and profiled by a police officer.
The mask is simply one more tool in the grab gab that can be manipulated by those in power. It's enforced so arbitrarily that it's hard to know what to do, especially for people of color who fear they could be targeted for hiding their faces. Emergency orders leave room for interpretation, and racial and socioeconomic prejudice cannot be discounted.
Historically, when authorities have the ability to police both what people wear — or don't wear — at whim, that leaves ample space for subjective interpretation. It can even lead to a form of victim-blaming. Lynette Iezzoni wrote about that in her 1999 book, "Influenza 1918: The Worst Epidemic in American History."
No matter the epidemic or disaster, various communities are policed by phantom legislation and subject to the judgment of individual officers. In Laredo, Texas, you can be fined hundreds of dollars for appearing in public unmasked. But elsewhere, masks still attract potentially unwanted attention. For some conservatives, refusing to wear a mask is a badge of partisan courage.
When authorities have the ability to police both what people wear — or don't wear — at whim, that leaves ample space for subjective interpretation.
Pandemics tend to exacerbate divisions rather than foster unity. "Unlike acts of war or catastrophic atoms, pandemic-causing pathogens don't build trust and facilitate cooperative defenses," says author Sonia Shah in "Pandemic: Tracking Contagions From Ebola to Cholera and Beyond," which was published in 2016. "On the contrary, due to the peculiar psychic experience of new pathogens, they're more likely to breed suspicion and mistrust among us, destroying social bonds as surely as they destroy bodies."
It isn't just state-sponsored authorities that can stoke tensions. Vigilantes roamed the streets during our 20th century pandemic, in order to make sure people were staying inside during quarantine. At the time, cities did their best to either goad or shame citizens into best mask practice. "The Red Cross distributed masks at an astounding rate, giving out one hundred thousand in four days," writes Iezzoni. "Newspaper ads blared: WEAR A MASK and save your life! A mask is 99 percent Proof against Influenza." Masked court proceedings were common and held outdoors. But a court could also see both judge and court officials flee in terror at the hint of a visibly ill defendant.
There is also the outstanding question of how the prevalence of masks could affect protests.
Laws will likely always be selectively enforced based on iniquities and fear between communities, lawmakers and police. Americans may be wearing masks with increasing regularity, but the consistent disparities are evidence that this country cannot hide from its own prejudices and old habits, especially in times of crisis.