At the outset of the pandemic, Amy, a 48-year-old mother of two from Ohio, was afraid. When the government began recommending people wear masks, she not only complied but also made masks for others. “I was like, oh, this is scary, this could be really bad,” she said.
But when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced the state would extend its lockdown for the month of May, she’d had it. Pandemic over or not, she was done. After that, Amy became vehemently anti-mask and began to doubt whether the coronavirus was really that big of a deal. Her mother unfollowed her on Facebook over her “anger posts” about masks, and she hasn’t heard from her in a month. She carries a homemade mask with her, just in case, but she doesn’t believe in them.
“It’s a violation of my freedom, I think, and then also I just don’t think they work,” Amy said. “A lot of stuff says it does, but then some doesn’t.”
Masks have become an extremely heated point of contention during the Covid-19 outbreak. Viral videos of people having meltdowns over masks are commonplace, and in many parts of the country, it’s not abnormal for strangers to confront each other publicly over the issue. A small but vocal segment of the population has dug in and ignored the growing evidence that masks make a difference in combating the coronavirus. For those who believe that at the very least wearing a mask can’t hurt, it’s hard to not develop some animosity toward those who refuse. The question I keep hearing from pro-mask friends and family is always the same: What are these people thinking?
In recent weeks, I spoke with nearly a dozen people who consider themselves anti-mask to find out just that. What I discovered is that there is certainly a broad spectrum of reasons — some find wearing a mask annoying or just aren’t convinced they work, and others have gone down a rabbit hole of conspiracies that often involve vaccines, Big Pharma, YouTube, and Bill Gates. One man told me he wears a mask when he goes to the store to be polite. A woman got kicked out of a Menards store for refusing to wear a mask amid what she calls the “Covid scam garbage.”
But there are also many commonalities. Most people I talked to noted government officials’ confusing messaging on masks in the pandemic’s early days. They insist that they’re not conspiracy theorists and that they don’t believe the coronavirus is a hoax, but many also expressed doubts about the growing body of scientific knowledge around the virus, opting for cherry-picked and unverified sources of information found on social media rather than traditional news sources. They often said they weren’t political but acknowledged they leaned right.
Most claimed not to know anyone who had contracted Covid-19 or died of it, and when I told them I did, the responses were the same: How old were they? Did they have preexisting conditions? They know their position is unpopular, and most spoke on condition of anonymity and will be referred to only by their first names. Amy told me people are “not very nice about this.”
The mask debate is complex. As much as it’s about science, health, and risk, it’s also about empathy. If someone doesn’t personally know anyone who died from Covid-19, does it mean those lives don’t matter? Are older and immunocompromised people disposable? Does one person’s right to ignore public health advice really trump someone else’s right to live?
“Death is happening in these wards where even family members can’t visit their loved ones when they’re sick with Covid, so the death and the severity of this disease are really invisible to the public,” said Kumi Smith, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota who studies infectious diseases.
It leads some people to brush the issue aside.
“I’m empathetic that anyone has to die ever, but that’s the reality of our lives. And I almost feel like if I’m going to get Covid and die from it, then so be it,” said Gina, a Pennsylvania real estate agent who wears a mask at work but otherwise opposes mask mandates.
But the empathy question also works the other way — attacking people for not wearing a mask doesn’t change minds. An open, more forgiving conversation might. That’s what happened with Scott Liftman, a 50-year-old man from Massachusetts who read a story in the Atlantic about men who won’t wear masks. He contacted the article’s author, Harvard epidemiologist Julia Marcus, and has come around — somewhat — on the idea of putting one on, at least in certain situations.
“I want to be sensitive, I want to follow scientific principles, but I also want to exercise common sense, too,” Liftman told me. “You never want to read something that just shames you. I really think that no two people are so different that they can’t find some common ground.”
“These people are part of our community, and they are putting other people at risk,” Marcus said. “If you can inch some people, you will see risk reduction overall.”
Freedom, but for your face
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spin out of control in the United States, many states, localities, and businesses have turned to requiring people to wear masks in the hope the measure will slow the spread of infection. Currently, 34 states have mask mandates, and polls show a hefty majority of Americans would support a national mask mandate, as well.
For those who disagree, that’s partially where the problem resides: They insist they’re not anti-mask, they’re anti-mandate. “If you want to wear a mask, great. I will never look down on you, have anything bad to say to you, do what you want. But the mandates are what I disagree with and I don’t think are right, especially now,” Gina said.
Rallies against mask mandates have popped up across the country, much like the protests to reopen the economy that took place at state capitols earlier this year. People wanted the freedom to get a haircut; now they want the freedom to go to the grocery store without covering their face.
Some of the people I spoke with drew the line, specifically, at government mandates. It’s one thing for a private business to require customers to wear a mask, they said, but another thing for a state government to do it. Private establishments “have a right to do so, and you should respect those rules,” Jason, a paramedic from Michigan, said.
Others, however, chafed at rules from businesses, too. Members of one Facebook group circulated a list of stores with mask requirements, chatting about boycotting those retailers or visiting to try to challenge the rules.
When I spoke with Jacqueline, who lives in Wyoming, she was upset over the mask requirement at her local Menards. She’d been to the home improvement store, sans mask, twice in recent days — the first time, she was allowed to make her purchase despite ignoring the rules, but the second time, she had no such luck. She was asked to leave the store after a physical altercation ensued — Jacqueline says a worker pushed her, the store says she rammed someone with a cart — and management called the police to file a report. She’s now banned from the store. “They don’t have to ban me because I’ll never go back again,” Jacqueline said. She told me she’ll go to Home Depot instead. (It also appears to require masks for customers.)
As to why she believes she’s exempt from the rules, Jacqueline cited the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution. “No states are allowed to make laws that take our freedoms and liberties away,” she said.
But then she mentioned a mask exemption card she got — not from a doctor, but from a friend. It appears she has one of the fake cards some people are using to try to get out of wearing a mask by claiming they have a disability. “I get overheated really easy,” she explains.
The issue with the freedom argument is that wearing a mask is about more than protecting yourself — there’s growing evidence masks are useful for protecting others from those who may have Covid-19 and not know it. Not wearing a mask may encroach on another person’s freedom to go out in relative safety.
Part of the problem is the facts have changed. Another part is where the facts are coming from.
There is no denying that Covid-19 messaging from official channels has, at times, been confusing and contradictory. Early on, people were told not to wear a mask, but now that’s changed. Scientific consensus evolves with new information, this is a new disease, and like it or not, the world is full of uncertainty.
Given that uncertainty, it makes sense people would have doubts. If officials changed their minds on masks before, what’s to stop them from doing it again? Some people also feel the pandemic isn’t as bad as it was made out to be in the spring. They don’t know very many people, if anyone, who have gotten sick, and in some places, especially more rural areas, masks just aren’t that common.
Among those I spoke with, however, I noticed that while the conversation might begin with contradictory messaging and doubts about efficacy, it often devolved into conspiracy theories. The mainstream media was lying, they said, asking whether I’d seen this video on YouTube or followed that person on Twitter. Jacqueline’s Facebook timeline was filled with posts the platform had flagged as false, and with diatribes that the company was censoring her. She told me she hurt her hand several weeks prior, and that she had weighed going to the emergency room but decided against it: She’s 65 and believes she’d automatically be given a positive Covid-19 test and placed on a ventilator to likely die.
Bryan, who lives in New Jersey, declined to speak on the phone for this story out of concern I might misconstrue his words. He opted to communicate via LinkedIn, sending, over several days, more than 4,000 words explaining his thoughts on masks and the pandemic. Initially, he said his main issue was the mandate.
“What the mandates have done is scare people into believing they are a must if they are to avoid catching the virus. And because those scared few feel that way, they become angry and vile towards anyone who does not share in their fear,” he wrote.
Bryan told me that he and his fellow “truth seekers” have always questioned the numbers on Covid-19’s mortality rate, and he expressed doubts about government officials’ advice and the media’s coverage of the pandemic. He acknowledged that some of what he was saying made him sound like a conspiracy theorist, but also leaned in: He believes masks are a step in “getting people into compliance so that they can make vaccines mandatory as well.” His theory: “Soon it will be, ‘take the vaccine,’ or you can’t travel, shop, etc.” Or worse, he said, digital IDs or “health care passports.”
Certain theories and conspiracies came up over and over again. Nearly everyone I spoke with referenced a single Florida man whose death in a motorcycle crash was erroneously listed as a Covid-19 death, saying it was evidence the virus’s fatality count was vastly overstated. (Research has shown that coronavirus deaths are likely underreported.) Many said that hydroxychloroquine is the miracle cure for Covid-19, despite evidence it is likely ineffective, and that efforts to develop other drugs or a vaccine are simply a ploy by Big Pharma to make money. Sometimes Bill Gates was involved, though exactly why he was painted as a nefarious figure was somewhat unclear.
Bryan mentioned an event related to pandemic preparedness, hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in October 2019, as evidence of activity that seems “strangely coincidental” given current events. “Who is one of the ones backing all of that ‘preparedness?’ Good ole Bill Gates, a man who not long ago had a huge image problem due to some monopolistic practices, etc. Now he seems to have revived his image because he is a ‘virus and vaccine expert’?” Bryan wrote.
Most of the people I spoke with got their information from their own “independent investigations” or content they found on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
“YouTube is where alternative thinkers are going to do their thinking,” Mak, whose hot yoga studio in British Columbia was shut down due to the coronavirus, told me.
“There’s definitely some sort of an agenda here to initiate control upon the people and to make people more obedient and compliant, and see which people are going to comply with some directives,” he said.
Some anti-maskers have turned to making content of their own. Tanya, also from British Columbia, had gone to local hospitals to try to record what was going on and prove that media stories about the outbreak were false.
“I know they’re lying to the masses,” she told me. “I don’t know anybody who has had coronavirus, I don’t know anybody who knows anybody, and I know a lot of people.”
“Anti-maskers will say masks are making you breathe in your own carbon dioxide,” said Eleanor Murray, an epidemiologist at Boston University. “That’s not at all a thing, because we know ... there are plenty of people whose occupations require them to wear a mask.”
Politics is part of it, but not all of it
Like so many things, masks have become a politicized issue. President Donald Trump and many Republicans have spent months using them as a political lightning rod. Some have since changed their tune — the president has begun recommending masks, though his message hasn’t been consistent or wholehearted.
“The challenge is that when you had political leaders early on saying we are not wearing masks, we don’t think it’s important, we don’t think it’s a good idea, there are a lot of people in the country who very, very seriously follow President Trump,” said Catherine Sanderson, a professor of psychology at Amherst College. “When you have somebody in that sort of a vivid role saying, ‘I’m not going to do this,’ it creates a norm people are motivated to follow.”
Jacqueline told me she believes the pandemic death count has been inflated in an effort to undermine the president. “They’re all saying this so that they can make the president look bad, so they can cause the problems they are causing,” she said.
Politicization is playing out at a much more local level, too. I spoke with Anthony Sabatini, a member of the Florida House of Representatives who has filed multiple lawsuits over mask mandates. Ahead of our interview, he emphasized he’s worried about mandates and government overreach, not the masks themselves.
During our discussion, he initially claimed police would be going into businesses and homes, checking to see whether people were wearing a mask. When I asked for evidence, he referenced an ordinance against gatherings of more than 10 people — not masks — but claimed they were “part and parcel” of the same issue. When I asked Sabatini whether he personally wears a mask, his initial response was, “Where? In my bed?” I clarified: when he goes out, like to the grocery store. Sabatini, who is 31, told me he doesn’t go to the grocery store because he’s “too busy” and “a millennial,” and therefore eats out all the time. He conceded he sometimes goes to the grocery store, so when I asked whether he wears a mask there, he insisted I name which specific store.
Sabatini said older people are generally most at risk of dying of Covid-19, adding that he is “very careful” around them — specifically those 82 or older. The majority of deaths have been in nursing homes, he explained, and he doesn’t know anyone personally in a nursing home. “Anyone in my age group, it’s just rare that you know anybody that’s in that age group,” he said.
According to the Florida House of Representatives’ website, there were more than 500 people residing in nursing facilities in Sabatini’s district as of the 2010 census, and about 5 percent of the population he represents is age 80 or older.
“Grandmas and grandpas die all the time”
Spring outside of my Brooklyn apartment had been a symphony of sirens. If there’s a chance wearing a piece of cloth over my face will do something to help stop that, that’s fine by me. It was an issue I posed to many of the anti-maskers: If I’m wrong, the worst that happens is I was a little uncomfortable at the grocery store in July. If you’re wrong, you and others could get sick and die. Is that worth the risk?
“I don’t want to be responsible for killing anybody,” Gina, the Pennsylvania real estate agent, told me, though she still insisted the virus is overblown. “If the cases weren’t reported on anymore and talked about, coronavirus would be gone.”
“I hear all the time, people are like, ‘I’d rather be safe than sorry, I don’t want to be a grandma killer.’ I’m sorry to sound so harsh,” Mak said, chuckling. “I’m laughing because grandmas and grandpas die all the time. It’s sad. But here’s the thing: It’s about blind obedience and compliance.”
As tempting as it is for many people to write off the anti-mask crowd, it’s not that simple. As Lois Parshley recently outlined for Vox, enforcing a mask mandate is a difficult and complex task. But it’s an important one: A lot of anti-maskers also have doubts about a vaccine, which public health experts say will be a crucial part of moving past the pandemic.
“Masks are actually probably a proxy for not believing in science, not believing in experts,” Amherst College’s Sanderson said. “The challenge, of course, is when there is a vaccine, these are the same group of people who are saying they’re not getting a vaccine.”
So how do you break through? As enticing as it may be for some people to shame and attack people who won’t wear a mask, it’s probably not the answer.
“One of the challenges is that you need to bring people to your side without saying, ‘You’re stupid,’ because when it’s, ‘You’re stupid,’ it’s very hard to convince someone,” said Sanderson, who’s also the author of Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels, a book about social norms.
As difficult (and at times contentious) as some of the conversations were, across the board, everyone was extremely nice. They also sent follow-up information to try to get me to see things their way. It’s easy to see how, for someone who’s on the fence, you might get sucked in: If pro-mask Bob tells you you’re a murderer but anti-mask Sue tells you she’s got a video you should see, you might prefer to deal with Sue.
Masks aren’t a panacea, Smith, from the University of Minnesota, said. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worthwhile. “We’re at this point where we are desperate in the United States,” she said. “I’m not about to argue anti-maskers down and say, ‘No, this will save everybody’s lives most definitely,’ but I think to reject it wholesale because some scientist changed their mind is really problematic.”
Like it or not, we’re all in this together, mask on or mask off. And just like the science can change, minds can too.
Liftman, the Massachusetts man who spoke with the Harvard epidemiologist who wrote about men who won’t wear masks, told me his conversation with the writer changed his mind. He felt like she showed compassion and didn’t condemn him. He’s still a little skeptical — he thinks it’s bad he’s supposed to wear a mask when ordering from the ice cream truck outside. But when he’s inside a store or in a crowded area, he gets it. While he still believes in individual liberty, he says it’s not just about himself, it’s also about the worker at the grocery store who doesn’t have a choice, and the person next to him in line.
“I was kind of very skeptical about the whole thing. Is this about government control? Do we really need it? As the science has evolved, I’ve become more in line with the idea that we really should protect ourselves more often than I initially thought,” Liftman said. Speaking with Marcus, and another virologist he reached out to, made a difference. “It opened my eyes up to being a little bit more sensitive.”