The masks come off

Patrons gather on the boardwalk in from of the Virginia City Cigar and Bar on Satuday May 8, 2020 - photo: Brian Bahouth

Opinion

A phenomenon of this extraordinary time: people are refusing to wear a mask in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the fact that it is the single most effective action an individual can take to protect themselves and others from infection. Why? Emerging science indicates that masks are possibly the most effective method of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

I went to a friend’s birthday celebration at a popular local bar. It was Friday night, and the place was packed. I had a great time—good friends, loud music, pizza and beer—but no one except the young woman server wore a mask. It was outdoors, on the back patio, and I did what I could to keep my distance. But that wasn’t in the cards. The people at the party were important to me, and me to them, and I really wanted to be in their company. 

It’s obviously impossible to eat and drink while wearing a mask. I wore one when I arrived, but somehow the masks never reappeared when we weren’t eating or drinking. It seemed like an unspoken agreement. “Oh, what the hell.” Roll the dice for a few hours. It’ll be alright—except if it’s not. I did not turn around and leave when I saw all those maskless faces, nor did I stay as long as I really wanted.  

That’s the most meaning I can squeeze out of the mask aspect of the birthday party. But in the world beyond that evening in a bar up the hill from our house, wearing a mask—or more accurately not wearing one—has become politically and emotionally freighted to an astonishing degree. 

This is not a bipartisan phenomenon. Republicans and Trump supporters have, beginning with some initial stirrings, progressed to a full-throated rejection of this facile but totally effective gesture. There is no equivalency here. Putting a simple, workable barrier between your possibly infected self and your fellow citizens—also possibly infected—has zero political implications. In our county, grocery stores and other businesses require everyone to wear a mask, and with no political axe to grind everybody—Republicans and Democrats—does just that.  

 But left to their own devices, Republicans at public demonstrations do not wear masks or observe social distancing; they do not wear masks at party functions, such as the recent get together at the home of Lyon County’s Republican health officer; they do not wear masks for their door to door canvassing, as a number of friends have reported to me. 

This somewhat incremental disappearance of masks and any recognition of their value has been finalized and disposed of by none other than President Trump himself. He has on a number of occasions mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask, or how he looks wearing one. 

Right here in northern Nevada, thousands of his supporters packed together at the Minden airport, shoulder to shoulder, without a mask in sight. The scenario was repeated the next day in Henderson, only indoors, with no social distancing and zero masks—with the exception of the people seated behind the podium and occupying the view of any cameras focusing on the President. 

How do we explain that so many people will take such risks, if indeed they acknowledge the risk, to themselves and others? Experience and logic tell us these are the same people who wear masks in the grocery store, so what happened? 

It’s not easy to get into peoples’ heads, but it’s not impossible. What is it that cancels fact, allows for one reality at a grocery store, and another at a political rally? Are they, within themselves, seeking something? It’s not power, because no matter what the outcome of this or any election, their powerlessness is a given. It is their ingrained, timeless complaint. 

I would propose they are, one by one, seeking his approval. And they get it. Both in word and deed Trump validates the unmasked, collectively loving and cheering crowd. They revel in his approbation, give themselves over to him, and he rewards them with his special brand of faux comradeship. It is a moment worth the risk of bringing home a deadly disease. 

You might think this is a level of devotion that goes beyond politics. You would be right.  


Erich Obermayr is an opinion writer for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his writing.


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