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The Mask Debate: Politicized and Without True Consensus

Health precautions have become politicized in our era of political polarization, why is this the case?

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Then and Now

Early into the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, there were significant amounts of misinformation and debate going on regarding the use of masks in public. Initially, the Center for Disease Control, Surgeon General, World Health Organization, and many other health experts told everyday citizens not to wear masks, since they were considered unnecessary and took away from doctors and nurses who desperately needed them. Many Americans were desperate to buy N95 masks regardless, while others heeded the advice of health professionals at the time. Now, many months later, the opinions of health professionals have done a complete turnaround, and millions are shamed for either not wearing masks at all, not wearing them at all times outside, or for wearing them improperly.

Much of the debate regarding masks has turned political, like most contentious issues nowadays. The right has had strong opposition to the mandated mask orders in more than 31 states for a variety of reasons. Some believed that states did not have the power to legislate mask orders, and some argued that the legislation wasn’t necessary and should be left up to individual choice. Others argued that the expert opinion on masks could not be trusted after the consensus on mask-wearing appeared to change almost overnight.

Initially, President Trump seemed to be against mask-wearing, as he was never seen wearing a mask two months after the mask recommendations began. President Trump is likely the most tested person in the world. Still, health experts and his political opponents argued that wearing a mask would present an excellent example to the American people about the need to wear masks. His political opponents seized the opportunity to point and accuse Republicans of politicizing the pandemic, pointing to the president and the refusal of his supporters to wear masks as examples.

Regional Differences

States have also taken vastly different approaches to combat the pandemic. Almost universally, large gatherings have been banned in the states with mandated mask orders. The more niche policies like paid sick leave and mandatory stay-at-home orders have been reserved for the states hit hardest by the pandemic like California, Florida, New York, and New Jersey. States in the North Plains and Mountain West region have not been hit as hard by the pandemic and are relatively lax in their restrictions compared to coastal states. The original goal of all the states was to flatten the curve by slowing the spread of the virus enough to prevent exponential growth. In the wake of so many new cases occurring in recently reopened states, the priority has returned to avoiding the overwhelming of the medical system.

Much of the debate regarding facemasks has formed from opposition to what many see as unfulfillable goals in testing and mortality rates from COVID-19. Originally, stay-at-home orders of about a month were meant to flatten the curve according to expert opinion.  After this month, cases continued to rise, leading many to believe that the experts have as little clue about the realities of the pandemic as ordinary people.  At the same time, proponents of universal mask-wearing have argued that the opposition to face masks is the cause of the spikes in cases in recent months.

Temporary, Unclear Solutions

It’s unrealistic to assume that a diverse country of more than 300 million will continue to lock themselves in indefinitely.  Without a clear timeline dictated beforehand, many will continue to refuse to obey government mandates, especially when the expert opinions informing these decisions have proven unsuccessful in defeating the first wave of the pandemic. Merely shouting at people to obey the government hasn’t worked and will never work without the existence of a solid, communicable plan. As of now, many states seem content mask requirements until cases plummet, but what comes after?

Jose Backer, General Assignment Reporter, is a graduate of St. Michael's College and is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Political Science. Born and raised in Southern California, he currently resides in the Pasadena area.

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