The mask controversy

Laurent Banguet

HUNTINGTON BEACH (AFP) – For Davey, a resident of the city of Huntington Beach in southern California, the requirement to wear a mask to curb the spread of coronavirus is not something he takes seriously.

“It’s a hoax,” the 51-year-old told AFP as he exited a clothing store mask-less, referring to a state rule that people in most public places wear face coverings.

“The more you test people, the more you come up with new cases,” he said, echoing words from United States (US) President Donald Trump as he attempted to explain the record number of infections recently recorded in California and several other states.

Davey is not the only resident of this city in Orange County, which has a large Republican presence, to revolt against lockdowns and mask rules.

“It’s my constitutional, the right not to wear a mask,” said Davey, who declined to give his last name.

While the number of COVID-19 cases in Orange County has not exploded like in some particularly hard-hit cities across the country’s south and west, the disease’s incidence is still worrisome.

An employee at a nearby shop said many business owners had given up trying to ensure mask compliance, given how sensitive the issue has become.

“We had a lot of protests against beach closures and masks here,” said the employee, who did not wish to be named. “Basically, a lot of shops around here are doing what they can not to lose customers.”

Few people encountered along city streets on a recent afternoon wore masks.

Among them was Tracy, a 25-year-old walking back from the beach carrying her surfboard.

She said she initially tried to convince friends to wear masks but eventually gave up.

“It sometimes ended up quickly in a fight,” she said. “I don’t know why, but the issue is totally sensitive. I decided to let it go.”

Controversy over the issue prompted the county’s chief health officer, Nichole Quick, to resign last month after weeks of defending her countywide face mask order.

Her successor scrapped the mandate, saying that masks would be “strongly recommended”, not required.

Meanwhile, County Sheriff Don Barnes has said he won’t enforce the state-wide mask order, opting instead for “education first”.

Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at the University of Southern California, compared the pushback against masks to the opposition that emerged when laws first required the use of seat belts.

“This is a new behaviour for most Americans,” she told AFP. “And you can think of it like seat belts.”

Complicating the face mask issue, Wood acknowledged, is the mixed messaging that has come from local, state and particularly the federal government.

“It’s become politicised and actually has come to represent your political orientation,” she said, with Democrats more inclined to follow the mask-wearing exhortations from health experts like top US infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci, and Republicans more likely to be influenced by Trump’s scepticism and mixed signals on masks.

Alison Dundes Renteln, a political science professor at USC, said the controversy goes beyond political identity.

“I’m not denying that there is a kind of a tribalism, hyper-politicisation,” she told AFP. “But I think it is much more complex… Americans don’t like the government to tell them what to do.”