82ºF

For some, forgoing masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic has become a political statement

Art on Sixth Street in downtown Austin has coronavirus-related themes. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)
Art on Sixth Street in downtown Austin has coronavirus-related themes. (Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune)

As Texas inches away from its economic shutdown and people resume sharing public and sometimes confined spaces, the question of whether to wear a face mask has become a way to pick sides in what’s quickly becoming a coronavirus culture war.

The decision has led to everything from protests to the threat of criminal prosecutions and, at times, heated wars of words that have escalated to physical altercations. Mask arguments among Texans are happening everywhere from retail stores to the highest levels of government, frustrating public health experts who say masks help slow the spread of the virus.

The disagreements come as more and more businesses in Texas are allowed to open — with state officials trying to strike a balance between further economic devastation and thwarting the virus’ spread. On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state was entering its second reopening phase, immediately opening child care facilities, while allowing bars to reopen at limited capacity later in the week and promising a return of sporting events — sans in-person spectators — by the end of the month. Some establishments, like gyms, restaurants and movie theaters, were already allowed to open at limited capacity.

In this phase of reopening, masks remain optional. Some local jurisdictions issued mask mandates last month, but in an executive order April 27, Abbott said municipalities can’t impose penalties on residents who violate rules about wearing masks in public.

“We strongly recommend that everyone wear a mask,” Abbott said. “However, it’s not a mandate. And we’ll make clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine for anyone not wearing a mask.”

But without a statewide directive on personal protective gear, further efforts to flatten the curve have essentially amounted to a statewide experiment in cooperation, hinging on the individual decisions of millions.

Public health experts have advised the use of masks, especially in public spaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends the “use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus.”

But pushback has been strong.

In San Antonio, a spectator caught a man without a mask yelling at a 99 Cents Only store employee for asking him to put on a face covering or leave.

“I don’t care. Just because everyone’s doing it, doesn’t make it legal,” the man is heard yelling at the masked employee. “The Texas governor said it’s not legal and I don’t have to.”

“Do you hear that?” he goes on, addressing a woman walking past him on the phone who’s wearing a thin, blue surgical mask. “Texas governor says you don’t need shit. Call the cops. You think I’m scared?”

He later pushes someone recording the confrontation.

Police were dispatched to the store “for a report of assault in progress,” but no arrests were made, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Farther south, in Harris County, an April emergency proclamation mandating face coverings led to so much backlash — including a lawsuit against the county judge — that officials amended a draft of the order to eliminate jail time as a potential threat for noncompliance. Not wearing a face covering could only lead to a hefty fine, though Abbott’s order overruled any penalties associated with the mandate hours after it went into effect.

The lawsuit seeking to block the order was filed by Steve Hotze, one of the most active culture warriors on the ideological right. On the day he filed it, Hotze, a vociferous opponent of same-sex marriage and vocal supporter of the failed 2017 “bathroom bill” that would have restricted the use of certain public facilities for transgender Texans, held a rally against the order in downtown Houston. Attendees waved signs with messages like “Don’t Mask My Freedom!” and “Just Say No” to masks.

Public health experts have looked on in dismay at the sight of public places and protests where throngs of people crowd together without protective face gear. Experts have described wearing a face covering as a simple and cheap way to protect others nearby and potentially mitigate the spread among asymptomatic carriers of the contagion.

Summer Johnson McGee, the dean of the School of Health Sciences at the University of New Haven, said people need to think about carrying and using masks the same way they think about umbrellas on a cloudy or rainy day.

“If there is a chance of rain, we carry an umbrella, and in the same way, if there is any chance of being exposed to someone with the virus, you should carry a mask and use it,” she said.

“After social distancing, masks are our most effective tool to prevent the spread of the virus,” she added.

But the decision not to wear a face covering, for some, has become a rebellion against what they see as a government foray on their personal liberties. For others, the choice is one of availability or convenience. Some Texans, especially those back in the workplace, said they found the facial coverings uncomfortable, hot or hard to breathe in, a nuisance they were not willing to tolerate long term. Others were skeptical of their feasibility.

“I accept that masks are necessary in our current environment, but I find them inconvenient and therefore choose not to venture out,” said Josh Ellis, 41, who works in the Dallas legal industry.

“We should definitely be wearing masks in any public place,” said Paige Brann, a student who lives in Spring Branch. “That being said, I haven’t seen anyone wearing them. People roll their eyes when I wear them.”

Aaron Reed, a restaurant worker in Austin, has been wearing a mask for eight to 10 hours a day.

“It’s incredibly insulting to see some people can’t be bothered to do it for the 15 minutes they are in a store,” Reed said.

But politicians’ mask decisions have been as inconsistent as the general public’s. At the White House, President Donald Trump said during an April 3 news conference that wearing masks would be a “voluntary thing” he was choosing not to partake in. In the U.S. House, several Texas Republicans declined to wear masks during the debate on a coronavirus relief package, despite a recommendation to do so by the House attending physician.

At the state level, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican, promoted mask wearing earlier this month as a “simple, cheap, easy step that can protect those around us and accelerate our state’s return to economic vitality.” Still, at news conferences where he huddles near the governor, lieutenant governor and other statewide health officials, it’s essentially a mask-free zone.

The result has been resigned anger and unease — particularly among Texas Democrats.

“A pledge: If @govabbott and co wear masks today, then I will not criticize a single action taken today for at least 24 hours,” state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, tweeted ahead of Monday’s press conference.

At the local level, some officials have chosen to don face coverings during public meetings.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner both regularly wear face coverings during livestreamed press briefings.

Turner said earlier this week that the issue shouldn’t become partisan. In response to the question, he turned to Houston City Council member David Martin, a Republican, and said, “I’m affiliated with one party, the mayor pro tem is affiliated with another party, and we’re both wearing masks.”

The political symbolism associated with wearing face coverings — though maybe not as charged as a “Make America Great Again” hat — has led some experts to worry about the damage this could do to the general public, too.

“Masks help prevent spreading the virus to other people. It’s not 100% effective, but it’s going to reduce the dose of the virus that you’re releasing” if you’re asymptomatic, said Shelley Payne, the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s LaMontagne Center for Infectious Disease.

Payne said it’s important for public officials to talk to health experts and get informed opinions to the public. “They can model good behavior by wearing masks themselves,” she added.

Matthew Cox, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, says he wears a mask on a daily basis. Still, he acknowledged, “it’s hot out and it sucks.” Cox said he’s in favor of requiring face masks in public, with the caveat that if they are required, they should be easily available and affordable.“To protect the public health and welfare, there is no good objection to not wearing a mask,” he said.

“All of that said, I am a little concerned that the entitled and short-tempered people will go crazy,” he added, noting he witnessed a fight Tuesday at a gas station “because some guy didn’t want to wear a mask.”

Lyle Burk, who works at a meatpacking plant near Amarillo, echoed a similar sentiment. “If I and the people I work with ... can wear face masks for eight hours while making the food you go shopping for, you can wear one for your 30-minute trip to the grocery store.”

Still, the plight of others hasn’t been convincing enough to the people who still choose to go without one. The hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan tweeted Wednesday that he’d “rather drive” than wear a required mask on Southwest Airlines flights next week.

“I’m not wearing a mask on a plane unless it’s an oxygen mask and I am blasting commies’ from the sky,” he wrote.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.