Commentary: The shifting politics of face masks: Whose freedom is it?

By Michael Smolens

The San Diego Union-Tribune

Congressional Republicans put out a clear message recently: Face masks are OK. You should wear one.

The concerted effort, reluctantly joined by President Donald Trump, should ease the partisan tension, if not end it, over face masks in the battle to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Hopefully, that will do the same for the larger philosophical struggle that frames the dispute, one that has been at the center of American culture and history since the nation’s founding —individual choice and liberty vs. collective freedom and security.

Striking a balance in that constant conflict isn’t easy, and sometimes is downright impossible. When it’s an either/or situation —as it seems with wearing a face mask —whose rights matter more?

Increasingly, research has shown the simple act of wearing a facial covering when coming into contact with other people saves lives and helps the economy. The pendulum has long swung in favor of wearing masks. And while polls have shown growing majorities of both Democrats and Republicans doing so, there continues to be a sizable gap between the two, with the latter less enthusiastic.

Not wearing a mask is seen as a political statement for many —an individual symbol of opposition to perceived overbearing government edicts. That was a dominant narrative in the media when protesters were rebelling against earlier stay-at-home orders and business closures.

Sometimes it appears there’s not such deep thinking behind the choice, but more of a devil-may-care attitude, unaware of or ignoring what may be best for the greater good.

As the coronavirus spread has become worse, concern and anger among the larger populace —notably including front-line health care workers —have come to the fore.

Terry Taylor, patient care manager at Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista’s intensive care unit, has little patience with people who say requiring them to wear face masks infringes on their personal rights.

“Wearing a mask, I think, is a minimal ask of anybody,” Taylor told Paul Sisson of The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s a violation of human rights to expose somebody who is not going to be able to survive this COVID.”

Perhaps this new bipartisan support behind the overwhelming consensus of health experts that wearing masks is essential will cause the pendulum to swing farther in that direction —that, and the unfortunate fact that young people, who initially were relatively unaffected by the virus, are now becoming ill in alarming numbers.

It would be nice if the motivation driving this shift was solely concern for the public’s health and welfare, but there’s more to it than that.

While many Republicans have taken the coronavirus seriously from the start, others exhibited indifference or worse, seemingly taking comfort that it was a regional matter that didn’t affect their political territory very much. This is when Democratic strongholds such as New York City and other major cities were being hit hard by the disease.

That, of course, has changed dramatically, as Politico noted last week:

“On the pandemic’s first peak in early April, the states that voted for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton accounted for 67% of new Covid-19 cases. For the newest peak, which we’re still climbing, the states that voted for President Donald Trump have an even larger share: They accounted for 73% of new cases on June 28.”

Then Goldman-Sachs released a study concluding that a national face mask mandate could help the United States avoid a 5% drop in gross domestic product “without suffering the public health consequences of a viral resurgence,” according to The Observer.

Greater use of masks would allow businesses to open more rapidly and recoup more losses from the shutdown.

Economists for the investment bank figured that a national mandate would increase the percentage of people who wear face coverings by 15 percent, The Observer reported, and reduce the daily growth rate of COVID-19 cases from the current 1.6% to 0.6 percent.

Trump has not suggested a national mandate is in the cards, but publicly has changed his view on facial coverings.

“I’m all for masks,” he said on Wednesday, adding that he has worn one occasionally. ” … I sort of liked the way I looked. It was OK.”

The public has not yet seen the president wearing a mask, however. Republican lawmakers have urged him to do so, saying that would encourage more people to wear them as well.

Trump, whose stewardship of the economy has been central to his re-election campaign, no doubt knows what Goldman-Sachs had to say.

About two dozen states have some form of a mask mandate. On Thursday, Republican stronghold Texas instituted a mask requirement in most counties as coronavirus cases continued to spike throughout the state.

Above all of those considerations should be this: Wearing masks saves lives. Various research has shown that. As of Friday, nearly 130,000 people had died in the U.S. from COVID-19.

A coronavirus model created by the University of Washington says 33,000 lives could be saved by Oct. 1 if 95% of the U.S. population wore face masks in public. Current projections suggest more than 179,000 people could die from COVID-19 by then. University researchers say that would fall to 146,000 with near-universal mask-wearing.

Those are big political, economic and life-saving numbers. Even if they’re off a bit, they make it difficult to continue arguing against wearing a mask.

Increasingly, masks are being compared with automobile seat belts, which became mandatory in cars in the late 1960s, and in subsequent years all states except New Hampshire required their use. At the outset, many people adamantly resisted, contending it was an infringement on their rights.

The rate of seat-belt use now hovers at just over 90 percent, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency.

“In 2017 alone, seat belts saved an estimated 14,955 lives and could have saved an additional 2,549 people if they had been wearing seat belts,” NHTSA says.

“The consequences of not wearing, or improperly wearing, a seat belt are clear.”

Some advocates for facial coverings have been making this argument: Like masks, seat belts don’t guarantee your safety, but give you much better odds of surviving an accident or avoiding more serious injury.

One big difference: Masks also help protect other people.