drochon8_Jabin BotsfordThe Washington Post via Getty Images_trump mask Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Mask Wars

The pandemic and the protests of recent months should serve as a reminder of a simple truth: a mask is always just a mask. What matters for democracy is not whether people cover their faces in public, but which people do so, and why.

NOTTINGHAM – For the last month, the United States has been regularly breaking its daily record for newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, registering more than four million cases overall and closing in on 150,000 deaths. Although other developed countries in Europe and Asia seem to be containing the spread, the US has gone in the opposite direction, with the pandemic spreading remorselessly to southern and western states: Arizona had as many cases as the entire European Union, which has 60 times the population.

What went wrong? Part of the answer is that certain states re-opened too soon. California, an early success story, experienced a 90% increase in cases in recent weeks, and has had to re-impose some lockdown measures. Florida’s daily count of new cases, at around 5,000 in the last week of June, had more than doubled a month later.

But perhaps the biggest culprit has been deep division over face masks, which in the US have become another front in an ongoing culture war. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that only 49% of conservative Republicans said they wore a face mask most of the time in the past month; among liberal Democrats, that figure was 83%. There have been angry confrontations between pro- and anti-mask advocates throughout the country, often outside convenience stores.