The cruelty of the 'face mask exemption' scams

Falsely claiming you can't wear a mask is a dangerous insult to Americans with disabilities

A fake mask exemption card.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Screenshot/YouTube, iStock)

When the history books one day look back at the thousands of easily-preventable deaths during the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020, they will start with Facebook. The social media website has been "a coronavirus conspiracy hellhole" since the outbreak began, though its deadliest legacy will no doubt be its role in reinforcing Americans' aversion to wearing masks. In the past month, a "Face Mask Safety — Know The Facts Before You Wear One" post went viral, spreading fake claims like that masks "decrease oxygen" and "increase toxin inhalation." Another image, posted on June 11 and already shared over 25,000 times, alleged that the World Health Organization says "masks should only be used by health-care workers, caretakers, or by people who are sick with symptoms like fever and cough," though such guidance has long been outdated.

Most alarming of all, a group called the "Freedom to Breathe Agency" has been hawking laminated "Face Mask Exempt Cards," which reference the Americans with Disabilities Act to falsely assert that holders can bypass mask requirements. The cards represent an extreme example of what has become an increasingly common attempt to co-opt the language of disability so that non-disabled Americans can flaunt local mask ordinances. These attempts are especially galling because the scams actively harm the very communities that the anti-maskers are purporting to be a part of.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.