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To wear or not to wear? Face coverings during pandemics are at least as old as the 16th-century Black Plague, but today’s Americans still dispute their use and effectiveness.

From observation, many San Antonians voluntarily don masks when out in public, but for others, mask-wearing remains an issue. Confusing and conflicting information from the World Health Organization (WHO)  and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic muddied the issues. Disputes over mask mandates by political leaders further complicated things, leaving the question largely up to individual choice – at least until Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s executive order Wednesday stipulated that businesses must require masks.

A messy media and social media landscape offers viewpoints on all sides of the spectrum, from adamant mask wearers driving a woman out of a grocery store in Staten Island, New York – one of the hardest-hit areas for infection rates – to anti-maskers, equally as adamant, posting various sources claiming masks are ineffective.

“We know and have learned it from many countries, especially in Asia, masks work!” wrote Sebastian Lang-Lessing on a recent Facebook post. Lang-Lessing, music director and conductor of the San Antonio Symphony, has been an ardent advocate for mask-wearing, social distancing, and other measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.

His next sentence in the post sounds a cautionary note: “But masks work only if everybody wears them.”

A Brief History of Masks in San Antonio

On April 16, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Wolff jointly mandated that masks be worn in public places where 6 feet of social distancing cannot be maintained, with a $1,000 penalty for noncompliance. April 27, the order appeared to be countermanded by Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide order that no penalties may be assessed for those not wearing masks, apparently freeing Texas residents to go maskless, though both he and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick strongly recommended wearing masks to help businesses reopen successfully.

Weeks later, as small uprisings against mask mandates popped up in several statehouses around the country, Bexar County Republican Chair Cynthia Brehm claimed such orders were unconstitutional, even un-American: “This is America and we shouldn’t have to be forced or mandated to wear a mask,” Brehm said.

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An informal Facebook survey garnered over 200 comments, most in support of masks. Common terms in those posts had to do with courtesy, respect for others, and community-mindedness.

“I absolutely HATE wearing them…. It’s hot, I am quite claustrophobic so wearing a mask makes me feel like I can’t breathe. BUT regardless of all that I am still wearing them whenever I go out in public because I know it’s not all about me,” wrote one respondent.

Criticisms of anti-maskers centered on selfishness, disregard for the safety of others, and ignorance of pandemic science.

One reply to Lang-Lessing’s posts reads: “I don’t understand how so many people have no regard for the health and lives of others. I hate to admit it, but this includes friends of mine, colleagues, relatives, and siblings.”

Asked how pro-maskers respond to non-mask-wearers in public settings, most said gestures like the “evil side-eye” suffice, with efforts to keep at a distance.

“I don’t want to be an enforcer and judge people for making a choice, so I just look at them like they’re relaxed about the issue and keep a distance, while keeping the potential consequences of being too close to a maskless person in mind,” wrote one respondent.

Others seem unconvinced by science around masks as effective prevention against coronavirus, but choose to wear them anyway. “I know they’re not as effective, but it’s something. I do it for others more than myself,” reads one such example.

Still others express ambivalence: “Absolutely wearing and hating every minute of it but absolutely wearing.”

On one of Lang-Lessing’s posts cheering the new mask requirement, a mask-hating commenter wrote, “Don’t agree on being forced, I hate masks; however, I choose to stay home instead. Be safe.”

The June 17 executive order by Wolff, effective June 22, might render the mask question moot, though it covers businesses only and people can still ostensibly gather without masks in public places.

Before Wolff’s June 17 order, he and Nirenberg had lifted their mask mandates based on Abbott’s April 27 announcement that no penalties could be enforced. The new requirement focuses on businesses instead of individuals because Abbott’s statewide order does not restrict fining businesses that fail to require masks should their local leaders require it.

Abbott has said that he will not override the Bexar County order.

Masks in the Media

“Infodemic”-fighting website addressed the effectiveness of masks by contacting the CDC directly, reporting April 21 that facial coverings help strengthen other social distancing measures and are considered effective in stopping asymptomatic virus-carriers from spreading the disease.

A Popular Science article updated that same day weighed in as skeptical on masks, but admitted that “surgical masks do help reduce the number of viral particles you release into the air,” citing a study by the National Institutes of Health. However, the article states that masks alone will not stop people from getting sick and emphasizes hand-washing and proper sanitization above all other precautions.

A May 12 article by a worldwide team of experts, still under peer review, “advances the use of the ’precautionary principle’ as a key consideration in developing policy around use of non-medical masks in public.” A study funded by the WHO and published June 1 in The Lancet medical journal carefully states “face masks are associated with protection,” after the results of 172 observational studies.

One respondent to the informal Facebook survey, Mahala Guevara, represents a viewpoint expressed by several, that she feels responsible for taking in a wide range of media information, to “synthesize on my own” to inform her precautionary decisions on pandemic safety. Others cite friends who are frontline health care workers as their primary sources of information.

The Evolution of Protection

H-E-B found itself the focus of wrath from more than 44,000 mask-supporters who signed a petition demanding the grocery chain require masks for all customers, citing the example of Costco, which on May 4 began requiring that customers wear masks.

Public perception was that H-E-B first required masks, then loosened the restriction following Abbott’s April 27 order. Dya Campos, H-E-B director of public affairs and governmental affairs, said the San Antonio-based company simply followed orders as they were given in each of the 150 cities and 84 counties around the country where H-E-B has a presence.

Campos praised local and state leadership. “The governor’s a big supporter of people wearing masks in public,” she said. “He wears a mask in public. Every press conference, you will see he wears a mask. People around him wear masks.”

She acknowledged the difficulty of navigating a broad customer base with widely divergent points of view. “There are certainly very passionate views on both sides of the mask wearing issue, and we saw this, the entire spectrum of … the feelings around wearing facial coverings,” Campos said.

“I think that people’s feelings about it can also evolve,” Campos said.

A June 17 case study in what’s described as a “conservative corner” of Missouri backs up her assertion. A Washington Post article recounts a potential hair-salon-based outbreak stanched by mask-wearing among the population, turning the town’s health department director from a skeptic to “a believer.”

As Bexar County now faces a dramatic spike in infections, “how do we accomplish the task to really make sure that that people know that masks are important?” Campos asked. “Masks are a proven way to slow the spread of the virus and to protect our neighbors.”

Campos also stressed that people should avoid immediate prejudgments on shoppers without face coverings, as some have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks.

“All we really care about is the spirit of protecting our neighbors, protecting Texans, protecting our partners,” she said.

Nevertheless, Holdouts Persist

Despite a growing scientific consensus that masks are effective in slowing community spread of coronavirus, some continue to advocate for “liberty” in the face of mask mandates.

A Connecticut-based group is organizing a “National No Mask Day” on June 20, and San Antonians continue to debate whether masks should be required.  

Information tends to hang around on the internet, like this April 1 article by a retired respiratory protection expert, that states “Data lacking to recommend broad mask use.”

During a Thursday afternoon visit to the H-E-B Plus on New Braunfels Avenue, four days before the mask mandate will go into effect, face coverings were nearly universal among staff and shoppers. Among hundreds, thirteen people were observed without masks during a one-hour period. Of those, only London Pierce would stop to talk about not wearing one.

Pierce arrived with her mask-wearing friend Shaquanda Wallace, who said her reason was that she’s pregnant, and her doctor’s office advised her that masks should be worn by people with the virus. Wallace had heard that several H-E-B employees have tested positive for coronavirus, so she felt it best to wear a face covering.

Pierce works in fast food and said, “I come around different people all the time and nothing’s been happening.” She expressed confidence that she would avoid catching the virus.

“If I was going to catch the ‘corona,’ by now I would have … caught it and it’s been months,” Pierce said, unconcerned about the recent local spike in cases. “I’m not worried … because I know I’m not gonna get it,” she said. However, she will wear a mask next time she visits H-E-B, she said.

‘It’s the Right Thing to Do’

Should you find yourself in need of a cloth mask but prefer to show a little personality, Centro Cultural Aztlán will host Las Mascaras de Aztlan, a virtual exhibition of masks available for sale that have been hand-decorated by San Antonio artists.

How does Executive Director Magdalena Gonzalez-Cid feel about holding the mask exhibition on the same day as National No Mask Day?

She said the exhibition had been scheduled weeks ago and is happy for Judge Wolff’s order. “This is being responsible and it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

After Wolff’s announcement, Nirenberg responded to a reporter’s question by advocating for “simple use of face masks” and issued a dire warning. “Because unless everybody wants just to go back home for another 18 months before we have this vaccine, we’ve got to get used to doing the right thing more out public, and that’s what the mask-wearing is all about.”

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...