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Inside the newsroom: We wanted to go to South Korea to explore ‘mask culture.’ We didn’t get there

Can wearing a mask become something to be proud of in America? Here’s how it made a difference in South Korea

SHARE Inside the newsroom: We wanted to go to South Korea to explore ‘mask culture.’ We didn’t get there
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Passengers arriving from overseas wear masks against the possible infection of the swine flu at Incheon International Airport in Incheon, west of Seoul, South Korea, in this May 18, 2009, file photo. For more than a decade South Korea has developed respect for the safety a mask can bring.

Lee Sang-hak, AP

SALT LAKE CITY — In early February a Deseret News reporter and an editor joined me in my office to discuss a potential assignment. I had been watching the dispatches first from China and now South Korea about the new coronavirus with particular interest.

My sister and brother-in-law were presiding over the Korea Seoul Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the missionaries, like the rest of that country, had gone into lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19

This was serious. Could it spread to America and if so, what could be done about it?

One thing in Korea’s favor was the cultural acceptance of wearing a face mask or covering. It was a behavior already accepted. So on that February day we discussed whether to send our reporter to South Korea to look at the coronavirus, its potential impact on the church and the country’s social systems, and learn from the Korean people just why they were willing to wear masks. The pitch was tentatively titled, “The culture of the mask.”

We never made the trip. The coronavirus and the risks associated with such travel grew and accelerated before we could even finish weighing whether it was worth the expense to make the 5,800 mile journey. I regret that we couldn’t get there. Our instincts were right that day. There was something to be learned and it could have better set the stage for the surprising debate underway in Utah and the nation concerning personal choice and public health necessity.

The culture of the mask has saved lives in South Korea. Medical professionals have been telling us for weeks that it will curtail the spread of COVID-19 and save lives here in Utah and the rest of the nation.

“In European countries (read Western countries), wearing a face mask has traditionally been taken to indicate illness or bad intention. In contrast, it seems to be generally regarded as a sign of thoughtfulness and modesty in South Korea” said a public health paper posted in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the United States National Library of Medicine, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

“Young Korean pop singers made the wearing of face masks fashionable. As such, face masks are considered as fashion items by young people in many Asian countries.”

But how did they get here? It was born of necessity as South Koreans embraced this simple measure of self and societal protection after meeting repeated threats to their health.

“In 2015, there was an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) infection, with 186 cases and 38 fatalities in South Korea. The epidemic lasted for two months and the government of South Korea quarantined 16,993 individuals. The MERS-CoV outbreak strengthened public acceptance of wearing a face mask in the event of the unexpected threat of respiratory viral infections,” states the public health paper at the National Institutes of Health.

South Korea also recognized that it has high levels of particulate matter in the air on a regular basis. Utah, too, has its bad air days. Can a mask become standard wear?

“Yellow dust (also called yellow sand or Asian dust), a natural source of PM, originates from the deserts of Mongolia and northern China, particularly in the spring. This has been a public health issue for some time, with a formal warning made in February 2014,” according to the paper. Add the 2009 threat of swine flu and it’s easy to see how a face mask became a necessary daily accessory

When COVID-19 hit South Korea, the appropriate public response wasn’t a political question. The safety measures were learned behaviors based on science and experience.

A Saturday in July

Saturday morning in Salt Lake City is usually bustling with activity, particularly on July mornings over at Gourmandise, a favorite downtown bakery breakfast spot. But July 2020 brings a different atmosphere.

Only half the tables have chairs, the others stand as barriers to promote social distancing. The servers wear gloves and masks and when my wife, mother-in-law and I visited on Saturday, in addition to the servers, all patrons wore masks, until seated at their respective tables. The vibe was pleasant, but I sense everyone there longs for the time when the energy from a lively cross section of Salt Lake residents returns as a happy companion to great pastry.

Tiberio Barros, Marcelo Vasconcelos and Gomans Marcus wear masks while waiting for their TRAX train to depart the Salt Lake Central Station in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The Utah Transit Authority now requires face masks be worn in order to ride public transit in compliance with the Salt Lake County health order.

Tiberio Barros, Marcelo Vasconcelos and Gomans Marcus wear masks while waiting for their TRAX train to depart the Salt Lake Central Station in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, July 1, 2020. The Utah Transit Authority now requires face masks be worn in order to ride public transit in compliance with the Salt Lake County health order.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Salt Lake City has still not moved from its May 1 designation when the health risk was changed from red to orange (moderate risk). The coronavirus remains a serious concern for its residents, many of whom have yet to return to dine-in restaurants, churches or office buildings. There’s a local mandate to wear a mask in public locations called by Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. On Friday, the Deseret News editorial board called on Gov. Gary Herbertto issue a statewide mandate to ensure that during the next few weeks the state can control the spread and help return children to school.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saintsalso issued a call for its Utah members to wear masks when gathering with others to fight COVID-19.

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Gov. Gary Herbert wears a mask as he waits in a hallway before discussing the importance of wearing a mask. He has encouraged Utahns to wear a mask but has stopped short of mandating their use.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

But the governor who states clearly he wants Utahns to wear a mask, has been reluctant to require it, as reported in our story announcing his decision to require masks for all school children if they return to classes next month.

The governor said he wants to reduce the rolling seven-day average of cases to less than 500. He said, “If we can’t do that, if we don’t do that, it may trigger some more aggressive action by the government,” reiterating that he has the constitutional authority to impose a mandate. We believe the message of a temporary mandatory order to wear a mask will make a difference.

The day after the governor spoke there were 867 new COVID-19 cases reported. Saturday there were an additional 632 new cases, with five new deaths. Now, 28,855 people in Utah have been confirmed to have the virus out of 405,352 tested, for an overall positive rate of 7.12%.

Critics of this column will note that South Korea is not America — the rules should be different. To that I would say, focus on the behavior and the motivation not of the government, but of the people. As noted by the health professionals: “It seems to be generally regarded as a sign of thoughtfulness and modesty in South Korea.”

And South Korea is a place where breakfast today happens much as it did before the pandemic because it successfully controlled the outbreak. I hear breakfast in Korea is typically made up of many of the same foods that make up their lunch and dinner. Each meal is accompanied by a well-placed mask, sometimes hidden in a pocket or pocketbook, but always ready when needed. It’s the culture.

Doug Wilks is editor of the Deseret News.