Feds send mixed mes­sages on masks

Amid pan­demic, choice to wear one a hot-but­ton is­sue

Orlando Sentinel - - Nation & World - By Aamer Mad­hani

For­give the Amer­i­can peo­ple if they’re in a fog about face masks. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment have done a number on them.

First there was the don’t-do-it phase. Then the nice-but-not-for-me dis­so­nance. Fol­lowed by the lo­cal-rules-don’t-ap­ply ex­cep­tions. Topped off by Trump’s stated sus­pi­cion that some peo­ple wear masks just to troll him.

It has all added up to a murky mes­sage about one of the crit­i­cal tools in the fight against the coro­n­avirus pan­demic. And the politi­ciza­tion of the to-wear-or-notto-wear de­bate is clear in re­cent pub­lic polling.

To be clear: The Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion rec­om­mends peo­ple wear cloth face cov­er­ings in pub­lic set­tings where other so­cial dis­tanc­ing mea­sures are dif­fi­cult to main­tain. Some states and lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties re­quire them.

But the mes­sag­ing dis­con­nect from Wash­ing­ton was ev­i­dent as re­cently as Fri­day, when Vice Pres­i­dent

Mike Pence de­fended Trump’s de­ci­sion to stage two big mask-scarce gath­er­ings in states with big surges in in­fec­tions and, in one case, lo­cal rules re­quir­ing masks.

“We just be­lieve that what’s most im­por­tant here is that peo­ple lis­ten to the lead­er­ship in their state and the lead­er­ship in their lo­cal com­mu­nity and adhere to that guid­ance whether it has to do with fa­cial cov­er­ings or whether it has to do with the size of gath­er­ings,” Pence said.

Early on, the gov­ern­ment’s no-mask mes­sage was un­equiv­o­cal. As the first known COVID-19 in­fec­tions were iden­ti­fied on U.S. soil, top pub­lic health of­fi­cials in­sisted masks should be re­served for front-line work­ers.

Later, the CDC is­sued its rec­om­men­da­tion for cloth face cov­er­ings in pub­lic set­tings where other so­cial dis­tanc­ing mea­sures were dif­fi­cult to main­tain. But Trump im­me­di­ately un­der­cut that guid­ance by flatly stat­ing he wouldn’t be fol­low­ing it. He told The Wall Street Jour­nal last month that some peo­ple wear masks sim­ply to show that they dis­ap­prove of him.

Now, the mask de­bate is heat­ing up in the South and West, where in­fec­tions are surg­ing to lev­els the coun­try hasn’t seen since April, when the North­east and Mid­west were par­tic­u­larly hard-hit.

In Ari­zona, Florida, and Texas, with GOP gover­nors and huge spikes in in­fec­tions, there’s been a hes­i­tance to re­quire peo­ple to wear masks in pub­lic spa­ces.

But in Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada and North Carolina, with Demo­cratic gover­nors and in­creas­ing in­fec­tion lev­els, rules re­quir­ing masks took ef­fect last week.

The di­vide on masks is stark even within Repub­li­can-lean­ing Sun Belt states, where some big city Demo­cratic may­ors have im­posed their own mask rules.

Fur­ther com­pli­cat­ing the mes­sag­ing is that as Trump ques­tions the ef­fec­tive­ness of masks and re­fuses to wear one in pub­lic, Sur­geon Gen­eral Jerome Adams has taken to Twit­ter to de­clare that “I show my pa­tri­o­tism by wear­ing a face cov­er­ing in pub­lic!”

That would be the same sur­geon gen­eral who tweeted on Feb. 29: “Se­ri­ously peo­ple — STOP BUY­ING MASKS! They are NOT ef­fec­tive in pre­vent­ing gen­eral pub­lic from catch­ing #Coro­n­avirus, but if health­care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our com­mu­ni­ties at risk!”

The dither­ing over face masks has un­nerved pub­lic health ex­perts as stud­ies sug­gest that the cov­er­ings could have a dra­matic im­pact on lim­it­ing the virus’s death toll.

“The pub­lic health com­mu­nity, I think, has been very clear that face masks can help re­duce the spread of the virus,” said Ayaz Hyder, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist at Ohio State University. “The prob­lem is you send mixed mes­sages when the per­son at the top of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is say­ing, ‘Nah, I’m OK.’ ”

The po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions of the de­bate are play­ing out all over the coun­try, and ev­i­dent in pub­lic polling.

While most other pro­tec­tive mea­sures such as so­cial dis­tanc­ing get broad bi­par­ti­san sup­port, Democrats are more likely than Repub­li­cans to say they’re wear­ing a mask when leav­ing home, 76% to 59%, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent poll by The As­so­ci­ated Press-NORC Cen­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs Re­search.

On Fri­day, Bruce Owens, 66, of Lake­land, Florida, wore a white sur­gi­cal mask as he walked around down­town St. Peters­burg. He said he’s been dis­ap­pointed by the dis­parate re­sponses of Florida’s elected of­fi­cials to the out­break.

In Lake­land, he says, of­fi­cials opted against a face mask man­date, while the mayor of the larger St. Peters­burg signed an or­di­nance on June 22 that re­quires masks in­side pub­lic places.

“They’ve han­dled it ex­tremely poorly,” Owens said of state of­fi­cials. “They haven’t really lis­tened to the ex­perts.”

Charles Kyle Durr, of Grov­e­land, Florida, said he would wear a mask if re­quired, but ques­tioned the need for a broad gov­ern­ment man­date. “I don’t think ev­ery­one needs to wear a mask,” Durr wrote to the AP. “Only a per­son with symp­toms of COVID or some­one who’s been di­ag­nosed with COVID needs to wear a mask.”

The pre­sump­tive Demo­cratic nom­i­nee, Joe Bi­den, is ea­ger to turn face masks into a cam­paign is­sue. He told a Pitts­burgh tele­vi­sion sta­tion he “would do ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble” to re­quire Amer­i­cans to wear face masks in pub­lic set­tings where so­cial dis­tance can’t be main­tained.

Tim Mur­taugh, a Trump cam­paign spokesman, re­sponded that “peo­ple should fol­low CDC guide­lines.”

But on June 23, Trump was in Phoenix for a Stu­dents for Trump event at a megachurch, where few at­ten­dees wore masks. The pres­i­dent de­clined to wear one de­spite the Demo­cratic mayor urg­ing him to do so.

Ap­pear­ing be­fore a House com­mit­tee that same day, Dr. An­thony Fauci, the gov­ern­ment’s top in­fec­tious dis­ease ex­pert, was asked about Trump’s re­fusal to wear a mask.

Fauci avoided tak­ing di­rect aim at the pres­i­dent but said he per­son­ally wears a mask “not only be­cause I want to pro­tect others and to pro­tect my­self, but also to set an ex­am­ple.”

On Fri­day, mem­bers of the White House coro­n­avirus task force once again urged Amer­i­cans to prac­tice so­cial dis­tanc­ing, fre­quently wash their hands, and wear face cov­er­ings in pub­lic spa­ces.

ALEX BRAN­DON/AP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump holds a face mask May 21 at a Ford plant in Yp­si­lanti, Michi­gan.

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