New York store owners may bar entry to those not wearing face masks, the US state’s governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Thursday, wading into what has become a national culture war over the donning of facial coverings in a pandemic.
The dividing lines are sharpening in communities across the country between those who embrace — or dismiss — guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about wearing masks or other face coverings in public spaces to try to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The issue pits rural communities against urban ones, and raises longstanding questions about Americans’ cherished sense of individuality versus the public good. It is becoming more urgent as states reopen their economies, increasing contact between people and therefore, say public health experts, risking further outbreaks of the virus.
“You don’t want to wear a mask? Fine,” said Mr Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, the hardest hit state. “But you don’t have a right to go into that store if the store owner doesn’t want you to.”
By contrast, Donald Trump has repeatedly flouted the CDC guidance — even while visiting a mask-making factory last week. Earlier this week, the US president appeared to disparage a reporter who declined his request to remove his mask when asking a question.
“Oh, OK,” Mr Trump said, “because you want to be politically correct.”
Nevertheless, the White House has ordered officials and visitors entering the West Wing, which includes the Oval Office where Mr Trump works, to wear masks or other face coverings, after two staffers tested positive for coronavirus. The White House guidance only applies to staff and not to the president
Rand Paul, the Republican senator from Kentucky, drew attention for refusing to wear a mask on Capitol Hill after becoming infected with coronavirus. Mr Paul argued that he was no longer able to transmit the virus, and so posed no health risk to others — an assumption that some scientists have questioned.
An opinion poll conducted earlier this month by the Associated Press found that 76 per cent of Democrats wore masks outside of the house compared with 59 per cent of Republicans. Some 84 per cent of blacks wore masks compared with 64 per cent of whites.
Meanwhile, there have been reports in recent days of violent confrontations at stores and other locations between those who are wearing masks and those who are not.
Soon after the virus arrived in the US some public health experts questioned the utility of masks to guard against it. The CDC now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings, and even provides instructions on its website about how to make them.
Some argue that wearing masks is a show of solidarity for healthcare workers and others who have borne the brunt of the crisis. Designs are turning them into trendy fashion accessories.
On Friday Doug Burgum, North Dakota’s Republican governor, became emotional as he pleaded for citizens in the overwhelmingly conservative state to show tolerance for those wearing masks.
“If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support,” said Mr Burgum. “They might be doing it because they’ve got a five-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life, who currently have Covid, and they’re fighting.”
Mike De Wine, Ohio’s Republican governor, has also tried to depoliticise masks, saying: “This is not a liberal or conservative issue. This is an issue of: how do I protect my neighbour?”
Even though New York has substantially contained the virus, there are still pockets of the city — particularly poorer and minority communities in the outer boroughs — that are seeing high levels of infection.
Those who were affected tended not to be frontline workers and emergency personnel, according to statistics compiled by the state’s health department — a finding that Mr Cuomo believes supports the effectiveness of masks and other protective equipment.
“The masks work, they work,” the governor said on Thursday. “And we have to culturalise the masks, we have to customise the masks for New York, to get New Yorkers to wear them.”
Mr Cuomo was flanked by two celebrities he had invited to his daily briefing to spread that message: comedian Chris Rock and actress Rosie Perez. They are both Brooklynites, and from the black and Hispanic communities that have suffered disproportionate levels of Covid fatalities.
Both seemed to view the mask issue more through a social lens than a purely political one. “It’s a status symbol almost to not wear a mask,” Mr Rock observed.
Ms Perez, meanwhile, decried the “hipsters and yuppies” she encountered who were not wearing masks. “What is it? Is it arrogance?” she asked. “Put your arrogance aside!”