When reporter BrieAnna Frank came to a Honeywell factory in Arizona last week for President Donald Trump’s visit, she was definitely wearing a mask.
Masks were the reason the president was there: the former Phoenix aerospace factory has swirled to produce them in recent months amid a national shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
But the dozens of people gathered outside the facility to applaud the president were not there to support masks. Their faces were uncovered, Frank told Vox.
When she approached the crowd members to interview them, the conversation quickly heated up. “They started screaming that I and the other journalists were trying to arouse fear, panic and paranoia there” by wearing masks, said Frank, who works for the Republic of Arizona.
One man in particular seemed to disagree with the male journalists who wore masks, she recalled. “It’s submission, it’s gagging, it looks weak,” he said, “especially for men.”
9:32 AM – Myself and other journalists here are being harassed for wearing masks.
A man says, “It is submission, it muzzles itself, it looks weak – especially for men.”
We are accused of spreading fear, knowing nothing and being ‘pieces of shit’.
– BrieAnna J. Frank (@brieannafrank) May 5, 2020
“I thought it was a statement people should know about,” said Frank, whose tweets about the meeting went viral. To the crowd in front of the factory, she said, “Masks clearly symbolized something other than” I’m trying to protect my health. “
They are not alone. However, Trump declined to wear a mask himself while being photographed at the factory he claims he wore one “Backstage.” Vice President Mike Pence was criticized for not wearing a mask on a tour of the Mayo Clinic in April. And when armed protesters turned up at Michigan State House on April 30 to protest home orders during the coronavirus pandemic, many were without masks. A screaming bare-faced man photographed during the rally later said he was “not at all” worried about the virus and would never wear a mask – “ever.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, wearing masks has further exposed America’s racial and gender biases. Earlier, the wearing of masks was associated with Asian countries and was therefore often rejected because of racist assumptions about those countries. When many cities began to oblige residents to wear masks, police began targeting black men to cover their faces, posing as criminals rather than people trying to abide by health guidelines. And for a particular subgroup of mostly white, conservative men, not wearing a mask seems to have become a hallmark of masculinity.
For unmasked protesters like the one in Michigan, “There is an assumption of some sort of invincibility associated with this idea of white masculinity,” Jonathan Metzl, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and the author of Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s HeartlandVox said.
It’s not just men – Frank saw many women among the unmasked Trump supporters gathered at the Honeywell factory. And of course, many men like to follow the CDC’s recommendation to cover their faces in public. Still, a story has emerged on the right that wearing a mask is weak and refusing to wear one is somehow strong. And that story can endanger anyone.
“One thing left [being] macho is fearless, ”Melanye Price, a professor of political science at Prairie View A&M University, told Vox. “But that fearlessness costs everyone around you.”
The CDC recommends masks. Not everyone listens.
Long before the pandemic hit, masks were common in East Asian countries, where they were seen as a simple way to protect themselves and others from diseases such as Connie Wang writes at Refinery29. Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, began claiming it in January. The US was much slower to recommend masks to the general public, but in early April, with the number of cases of the virus spreading by the day, the CDC recommended that everyone in certain public institutions wear a fabric mask. Some cities, such as New York and Los Angeles, also began to make masks mandatory in certain environments.
Like much about the new coronavirus, the impact of mask usage on transmission isn’t entirely clear. But experts believe that even fabric masks can provide a degree of protection to wearers – and perhaps better protection for those around them. The virus appears to spread when germ-containing drops travel from one person to another, as Vox’s German Lopez reports, and “masks prevent people from spreading their own drops.” That is why if everyone wears a mask – including those who are asymptomatic but may still be carrying the virus – it could help stop Covid from spreading.
Most Americans seem to be on board with the CDC’s recommendation. In a Morning Consult poll conducted April 7-9, 72 percent of respondents said they planned to wear a mask in public places for the next two weeks.
Others, however, sanded on the advice of the CDC. While people across the country protest against their state’s orders to stay in place, many have appeared in public without masks. The demonstrators in Michigan were an example. The state has been a hotbed of resistance to social distance restrictions – resistance encouraged by Trump with his tweets about “liberating” Michigan and other states. And on April 30, hundreds of protesters gathered at the state capital in Lansing, some of them armed and many of them avoided masks and were close to each other in violation of social distance guidelines, according to Reuters.
One of the maskless protesters was Brian Cash, who was photographed during the event. He later said the Detroit Free Press that he believes the coronavirus has been released by the Chinese government and that social restrictions are useless because people still go to supermarkets and pharmacies, “what’s the point of staying at home?”
This resistance to masks also has support in the Trump administration. Pence, the head of the federal government’s response to the coronavirus, said he did not wear a mask on a tour of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota because he is regularly tested on Covid. Later he kicked back and said he should have covered his face. But on Friday, Pence went to two events in Iowa without a mask, even though his press secretary had recently tested positive for the disease, according to the Intercept. At one event, CEOs were even asked to remove their own masks before taking to the stage with Pence.
Trump, meanwhile, has consistently appeared in public without a mask. After being photographed without a photo at the Honeywell plant in Arizona, he said he wore one ‘backstage’ before the photo opp.
“But they said you didn’t need it, so I didn’t need it,” he continued. “Besides, if you noticed, no one else had it in the group.”
But after assistants tested positive for the virus last week officials are now being asked to wear masks on the White House grounds, according to the Washington Post. However, Trump is unlikely to wear a mask himself, assistants say.
For Trump, not wearing a mask is a way to project masculinity
The Trump administration’s behavior around masks has a sexual undertone. For Trump and Pence, not wearing a mask could be a way to project a macho image, Metzl said, playing in “tropics of indestructibility.”
“Playing safely seems to contradict a core principle of masculinity: show no weakness,” writes professor of social sciences Peter Glick at Scientific American. “Ignoring experts’ warnings about personal hazards signals” I’m a tough guy, bring it on. “
Trump’s reporting has also helped ignore the risks of coronavirus as the tricky or strong thing to do. Despite warnings from public health experts about the dangers of premature reopening of the country, he believes he said during his performance at the Honeywell factory that “the people of our country should see themselves as warriors” because “our country must open.”
Such militaristic, tough messages, along with Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, can encourage ordinary people – especially men – to minimize the risk of coronavirus because of the masculine appearance.
While the refusal to wear masks is not an exclusively male phenomenon, a Michigan woman was Arrested last month After police said she attacked a supermarket employee who told her to leave because she was not wearing a mask, there is evidence that men viewed the recommendations for masks with more skepticism than women. In the April Morning Consult poll, 76 percent of women said they planned to wear a face mask in public for the next two weeks, compared to 67 percent of men.
And while Trump’s story about the virus can amplify gender stereotypes, the question of masks also reveals Americans’ racial biases. While white men could appear in public without masks – and with weapons – as part of a protest, black men were attacked by the police, both for wearing and not wearing masks. In Philadelphia, police officers were caught on video violently removing a black man from a bus for not covering his face just a day after the city required it, Fabiola Cineas writes at Vox. And a Miami police officer arrested and handcuffed Armen Henderson, a black doctor who tests homeless patients for Covid-19 while wearing a mask and moving equipment.
Black Americans often need to engage in ‘social signaling’ to make whites feel comfortable in public spaces, said Price, the professor of political science. “First you say good morning, first you laugh,” she said. “You can’t do that with masks.”
White people often see black people as dangerous or don’t belong in public places, Price said. “But a black body with a mask is something that somehow expresses even more danger.”
For white protesters like the one in Michigan, not wearing a mask can be a sign of some kind of immunity to danger – or at least perceived immunity. As white Americans, they were unlikely to face the same sort of police brutality as black people when protesting. “Imagine ten black men and guns walking to a state capital in the United States,” Price said. “They’d be shot before they ever came up the stairs.”
But coming together in crowds without masks is also an explanation of perceived immunity to the virus, Metzl said. The exposed demonstrators seemed to send the message that “nothing will happen to me because of my whiteness,” he explained. “If you thought you were really going to get the corona virus, you wouldn’t act like that.”
The fact that black and Latinx Americans have been disproportionately likely to become infected and die from the virus in many communities that may affect such attitudes. “I think people across the country feel this is something that happens to someone else,” said Metzl.
But people who refuse to wear masks can endanger others, not just themselves
Clearly, the sense of invincibility that leads protesters to avoid masks can backfire when they get sick. Pence and Trump may also reconsider their position in the coming days as White House officials have tested positive – Pence himself reportedly holds away from Trump and other employees to prevent them from possible exposure.
But some say that the particularly disturbing thing about refusing to wear a mask is that while it may seem like an expression of harshness, it actually increases the risk for others more than it does for itself. Some may feel that not wearing a mask expresses their own invincibility, “you could also think about this in terms of all the other people you endanger by not wearing a mask,” said Metzl – your family, friends , colleagues, the rest of society. Not wearing one is “symbolic of some kind of loss of a greater sense of responsibility for one another.”
Recovering that loss won’t be as easy as sending the message that ‘tough guys wear masks,’ Metzl said (although Washington Post humor columnist Alexandra Petri has proposed “Masks For Him” - slogan: “We put the ‘mask’ in ‘toxic maskulinity'”). The country should rather look at what the current mask debate says about racism and other prejudices. “What we need is a much more concerted effort to tackle the bigger problems represented by masks.”
For Frank of the Arizona Republic, confronting masks outside the Honeywell factory is also part of a wider story surrounding the virus. She remembered another incident in which a female journalist was charged, this time by a woman for wearing a mask. “I really think what happened to all of us on Tuesday in the field is an indication of a bigger problem,” with the way masks are perceived, Frank said.
But for her, wearing a mask is about one thing: public health. Frank lives with her mother, a nurse who treats Covid-19 patients. “I’m trying to be very careful,” she told the people gathered outside the factory. “I’m trying to protect myself and the people around me.”