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How did face masks become a political thing?

Clark Goldsberry, a high school teacher at American Fork High School, listens as Nicole Holley and others question him on why he wears a mask outside of the Utah County Administration Building in Provo on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The host of a radio show asked me last week why mask wearing has become intertwined with politics.

I had no good answer. I’m not sure anyone does.

It’s an election year. Hyperpartisan Americans are, for the most part, stuck at home. The news is focused laser-like on two things — the pandemic and protests against racial injustice. Maybe this is a case of simply having to use the political resources you’ve been given.

No one really enjoys wearing a mask, especially on a hot summer day. Why not turn that discomfort into political discontent? Never, as a famous Democrat once said, let a crisis go to waste.

Still, it makes no sense. It certainly isn’t part of any party’s official platform.

I’ve heard people blame the president. I’ll admit, President Donald Trump has been inconsistent. Anyone who really listens has heard him say for a while now that people should wear masks, but he seldom wears one, himself. And yet he tweeted a photo of himself in a mask this week, noting that many say it’s patriotic to wear one, and “There is nobody more Patriotic than me. …”

I doubt that will change much. I’ve had people tell me that mandating masks is unconstitutional, and yet they never point out exactly how.

I’ve heard lots of talk about them being ineffective, from people who know nothing about such things.

Here is what we do know. A month ago, Salt Lake County made wearing a mask in public mandatory. Since then, the county has gone from providing about half of the state’s daily supply of new COVID-19 cases to about 35% on most days. That’s what Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, told the Deseret News.

The decrease began about two weeks after the mandate went into effect, which is about the time it would take to stifle new infections — which is what masks are designed to do.

Health officials are reluctant to draw a direct cause and effect. They’re scientists, after all, and there is no specific data to definitively prove that connection.

But the Deseret News quoted Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at University of Utah Health, who said that he, as I, have noticed people in Salt Lake County complying with the mask order. This, I believe, is because stores and restaurants are enforcing the rule. Kindly old greeters at Walmart have turned into bouncers. I’ve watched them turn people away.

Vinik said it’s “pretty compelling that it probably is the mask mandate which has made this difference.” Which, the lack of hard data aside, is common sense.

So, why aren’t politicians extending the mandate statewide? Why doesn’t Utah County, the county with the second highest number of cases, join the mandate?

Again, the answers are elusive.

A few days ago, about 100 angry Utah County residents packed into a County Commission meeting, without masks, to oppose such a thing. It was a disturbing display of emotion and ignorance, with conspiracy theories flying through the air like sputum. The commission chairman had no choice but to quickly adjourn.

Given the political climate, public office holders may be afraid to inflame anger during an election year. They also may fear igniting a backlash that results in more dangerous public gatherings.

Despite all of this, there may be some good news. The BBC this week published a set of surveys by YouGov that showed 73% of Americans say they wear masks in public. Only France, Japan and Singapore had higher percentages. Australia and Britain lagged far behind.

So maybe we’re not so bad, after all. Except, that figure is higher than a recent poll of Utahns, commissioned by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics. It found only 48% saying they were not yet comfortable going without a mask, while 42% said they were, and 10% weren’t sure.

Some health professionals say we need 80% compliance to tamp down the virus.

The Utah Medical Association released a statement saying “If everyone would do these simple things (wear a mask and maintain a social distance), the virus could be stopped much sooner and we could return to normal social and economic activity.”

These aren’t hard things to do, if only it wasn’t an election year.