Autumn Short works in a bank in Meridian, handles money often, and doesn’t wear a face mask, as many people have started to do when in public in response to the new coronavirus.
Short doesn’t fault anyone for wearing a mask — she believes it’s a personal choice, she wrote in an email to the Idaho Press — but she doesn’t believe wearing a mask will keep the virus from spreading, given all the ways a person can become infected.
Plus, she works in a bank — and, in the pre-pandemic world, if people entered a bank wearing a mask, one could be forgiven for thinking they had less-than-altruistic intentions. The bank where she works asks customers not to wear a mask inside, although if they are uncomfortable with that, they can still use the drive-thru, Short said.
“I do not look down on people that wear a mask because it is their own personal choice,” Short wrote. “We have the freedom to choose and I choose not to.”
Boise resident Katrina Krueger, on the other hand, wears a mask even when she’s walking her dog. It might seem excessive, she said, but Krueger remembers what it was like visiting her late sister, who was immunocompromised, in a nursing home. Her sister died before the coronavirus outbreak, but Krueger would wear a mask when visiting.
“It was to protect my sister from me, not to protect me from my sister,” Krueger told the Idaho Press.
She said that understanding of masks influenced her choice to wear a mask during the new coronavirus outbreak.
That daily choice of whether to wear a mask is part of the new reality Americans are now inhabiting. Once considered unnecessary or largely useless, cloth face masks have since been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Americans in their day-to-day lives as a way to slow the spread of the virus.
But that doesn’t mean all Americans are following those guidelines, or others from public health officials — and there are a variety of reasons why they might not, ranging from the political to the practical to the personal.
A recent Facebook post from the Idaho Press inviting people to comment on whether they wear masks or not and explain their logic received more than 80 comments in 24 hours. Some felt masks were absolutely necessary, others didn’t, and more than one appeared to be unsure of how they felt.
The question, from a public health standpoint, is why. What makes some people decide to follow recommendations from health experts and government officials to help slow the spread of the virus, while others choose not to — or seem galvanized to do the opposite? While some say wearing a mask in public has become a political statement, is there more at play than just politics?
Some in Idaho’s psychology community believe there very well could be.
THE START OF IT
The outbreak of the new coronavirus in Idaho — and in the United States as a whole — has always been a fluid, volatile situation, and what Idahoans heard from officials changed rapidly as the virus spread and scientists learned more about it.
When public health officials announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 13 — at an in-person press conference in the governor’s small ceremonial office — they emphasized the low risk of Idahoans getting infected. A week later, Meridian had a social distancing order in place, requiring everyone to remain at least 6 feet apart and businesses to shut down if they couldn’t facilitate distancing. Boise followed suit days later.
That whiplash in messaging applied to what health officials said about masks as well, said Brian Wolf, an anthropology and sociology professor at the University of Idaho.
“I think there was a lot of initial confusion with masks early on,” Wolf said. “It was very clear that what (officials) were saying early on was that masks don’t do anything.”
Lisa Schiro, a licensed clinical professional counselor at K-Counseling and Anxiety Treatment in Boise, said she believed the initial messaging people received about the virus had a strong influence on how they acted as time passed. Mixed messages and new information about the virus may have led to frustration, she said.
“I think people really paid attention initially, but after a while the message got really mixed up,” she said.
In March, health experts were urging residents not to go out and buy masks, but to save them for health care workers. Cloth masks weren’t encouraged, either, because the virus is so small it can pass through the material.
Those recommendations changed in early April, however, when health officials started encouraging people to wear masks, even homemade cloth face coverings, in public. It wouldn’t protect the wearer from getting infected, according to the science, but a mask could catch the droplets of virus-spreading moisture released as a person talks and breathes. With so many estimated asymptomatic cases in the country — up to 35% of those with the coronavirus can be asymptomatic, the CDC said Friday — public health experts thought wearing a mask might be a painless precaution one could take to help slow the spread of the virus.
Wearing a mask, however, did not remain an apolitical choice for long — and social distancing never was.
‘THE STORIES THEY TELL THEMSELVES’
The relatively mask-less crowds that gathered at Idaho’s Statehouse in April and May were among many protests throughout the country aimed at defying government orders to socially distance. Across the country, protesters emphasized the need to protect their individual rights over the government’s need to protect the public from the threat of the virus.
Schiro speculated that could have to do with bedrock beliefs people hold about individual rights. Everyone has a core belief about the world through which they filter information, she said — the “story that a person tells themselves.”
“If that story is, ‘Oh, the government’s trying to tell me what to do, I am not going to allow that to happen because the government’s bad and they don’t want anything good for me anyway’ — you can imagine, if that is your filter, if that’s your core belief system, everything that happens to you is going to be filtered through that core belief,” she said.
Michael Spengler, a Boise counselor who operates Spengler Counseling, also pointed out fewer people in Idaho than other states may know people who have been sick or died from the virus. There could be greater degrees of separation, he said — much as Krueger’s decision to wear a mask stretched back to her experience with her sister, people may be more likely to take extra precautions once they or someone close to them have been sick.
The size of the sacrifice a person is asked to make also plays a role, said Jamie C. Derrick, associate clinical professor of psychology at the University of Idaho, pointing out the economic hardship many have suffered because of social distancing measures.
Some Idaho businesses have indeed advanced the economic hardship argument as a reason to defy stay at home orders — Slick’s Bar in Nampa, for instance, and the Sun Ray Cafe in Boise were both open before government restrictions allowed them to be. Slick’s Bar, at least, received a visit from the Idaho State Police as a result — but didn’t close its doors, KTVB reported.
“I am glad (the governor’s) heart goes out to those who haven’t seen a dime of unemployment,” according to a May 14 post from the bar’s official Facebook account, commenting on a press conference during which Little spoke. “But his compassion for our lack of survival doesn’t put food on the table.”
Derrick wrote sacrifices — such as those made by those who work in the food service industry — need to be acknowledged.
“It’s easier to go along with distancing and masks when the personal sacrifice is lower,” she wrote. “While everyone is being asked for personal sacrifice, it would be helpful for us to acknowledge people for the size of the sacrifice they personally are making.”
And those sacrifices can be deeply personal in nature. Kim Deugan, executive director for Advocates Against Family Violence, pointed out that for survivors of domestic violence, covering the mouth with a cloth mask can cause flashbacks to times an abuser put a hand or a pillow over their face or tried to strangle them.
“It can cause real intense flashbacks even to the point where it causes severe panic attacks,” Deugan said.
Some of the defiant behavior may also be a reaction to the uncertainty the virus creates, Schiro said. Some people responded to that uncertainty with extreme caution — one of her clients didn’t step outside at all for 40 days, she said — while others respond by flouting government recommendations.
“Having not lived through a pandemic before … there’s a lot of unknowns, and that’s where anxiety lives,” Schiro said. “So I think the responses for people who don’t tolerate uncertainty very well — they’re going to be more likely to respond in a way that is through fear. … We talk about this a lot in session. We can’t see this virus. We can’t see it, it’s hard to know where it is, so how do you plan for that? … But boy are we seeing a difference in response patterns between the two types of people.”
Peer pressure may also play a role; in fact, Gov. Brad Little said, when he enacted his statewide stay-home order, he hoped social pressure would enforce it. The phrase “pandemic shaming” has recently come into vogue to describe the practice of publicly criticizing people — often on social media — who do not obey social distancing guidelines.
“I think there is peer pressure, but I don’t think it’s different from the peer pressure we always have,” Spengler said. “If you feel anxious and you don’t really want to stand out, now all of that energy is put into your mask.”
OF MASKS, MASCULINITY AND VULNERABILITY
Anecdotally, Wolf, the anthropology and sociology professor at U of I, said he notices more men foregoing masks than women during his trips to the grocery store where he lives in Moscow. That could, he thought, have to do with Americans’ commonly held views of what masculinity looks like, and why men might choose to not wear a mask.
“They’re afraid of being weak and vulnerable,” he said.
He’s far from the only person who made the observation. Anna North, writing for Vox, drew a similar conclusion in a May 12 story about President Donald Trump’s frequent public appearances without a mask. As part of the story, North spoke with Arizona Republic reporter BrieAnna J. Frank, who had recently covered the president’s tour of a former aerospace plant during which neither Trump nor many members of his entourage wore masks — and, in fact, discouraged her from doing so.
“One man says: ‘It’s submission, it’s muzzling yourself, it looks weak — especially for men,’” Frank tweeted about the incident.
This isn’t even a controversial opinion in some conservative circles. The day before Vox published the story, The Federalist, a conservative online newspaper, published an opinion column from David Marcus titled “The president of the United States should not wear a mask.”
Marcus argued Trump is “projecting American strength and health at a time when strong leadership is needed,” by not wearing a mask.
To be sure, said Clarissa Richardson, a licensed psychologist and professor at the University of Idaho, there is vulnerability implicit in wearing a mask, and — as Wolf points out — vulnerability cuts against America’s traditional view of masculinity.
“I think there’s a sense of feeling weak and that that means … you have to accept your vulnerability in order to wear a mask,” Richardson said. “I think vulnerability is hard. … And yet, it’s a reality for everyone. We are vulnerable. But that’s hard to accept.”
Spengler, though, who lists men’s issues as one of his specialty areas in his counseling practice, felt the gender explanation alone was too simplistic. He said he believed are were “deeper currents” at play and pointed out that, anecdotally, he’s seen women who don’t wear masks as well. He felt it was more a matter of people in general not wanting to feel vulnerable.
Idaho’s governor, for his part, has been photographed in public wearing a mask, as has Dave Jeppesen, director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
But it’s not just vulnerability implicit in the decision to wear a mask — Wolf argued the action also implies empathy. Masks are meant to keep a wearer from spreading the virus to other people; wearing one, he said, displays a certain concern for others’ well-being.
“It’s on your face — this is an acknowledgement that there is a virus out there, and it’s kind of scary,” he said.
— Idaho Press Ada County reporter Thomas Plank contributed to this story