A question for anti-mask Americans

Would you wear a mask in Hong Kong?

A mask.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) on Wednesday issued an executive order guiding the next phase of his state's response to COVID-19. Though more lenient than some approaches, an uncompromising strike for anarchy it is not. Large gatherings remain banned. Shelter-in-place is ordered for those who meet certain "criteria for higher risk of severe illness," which by my rough estimate includes at least one in four Georgians. Workplaces are urged to ban handshakes. Mask use is required for workers in public roles like food service.

But there's one restriction Kemp says is a "bridge too far": mandatory mask use in indoor, public places where social distance can't be maintained. The order bans mask requirements by local governments.

Kemp isn't anti-mask. He recently took a "wear a mask" tour of his state, during which he modeled mask use even as other prominent Republicans, including President Trump, pointedly did not. He told Georgians to "follow guidance provided by public health officials." His executive order prohibits local mask orders on page 32, but it "strongly encourage[s]" mask use 30 pages prior.

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None of that seems to have shifted Kemp's critics, who have lambasted his anti-order order. "It is officially official," tweeted Savannah Mayor Van Johnson (D). "Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us. Every man and woman for himself/herself. Ignore the science and survive the best you can." Many of the social media responses to the order accused Kemp of genocide.

Kemp's personal encouragement probably won't shift the anti-mask crowd either, because aside from those operating with misinformation, their opposition isn't about public health. Some of it is based in angry anti-elitism, fueled by the CDC reversal on masks, whether it was a "noble lie," a social engineering attempt, or an innocently incompetent communication of evolving scientific knowledge. For many, I suspect there's also a more reflexive element of fear and desperation to regain control over lives upended. You can't single-handedly reopen your kid's school or bring patrons back to your restaurant, but you can refuse to cover your face. Then there are elements of masculinity (masks are thought to make men look weak); partisanship (skip the mask to own the libs); and principle (masking, maybe even when voluntary, is capitulation to fearmongering and tyranny). I've spoken with people who were sincerely convinced wearing a mask is the first step toward complicity with genocidal authoritarianism.

This tribalistic, self-perpetuating politicization of masks is disheartening and absurd. I doubt we will escape it, except in hindsight. But to try, I want to pose a thought experiment to those who refuse to wear masks on grounds of personal freedom, which is the argument around which most organized, public protests of mask mandates have coalesced. (And I want to propose to those who already support masking that use of this experiment, or something like it, might be more persuasive than accusations of genocide.)

In Hong Kong, like many places in Asia, mask use was already widely practiced pre-COVID-19 to deal with pollution and contagion. When large-scale protests began in Hong Kong in 2019, demonstrators wore masks — often the same masks they'd use during illness — to shield themselves from surveillance and tear gas. The government responded by banning all face coverings, a prohibition that was maintained as COVID-19 began to spread. Hongkongers didn't care. They voluntarily and almost universally adopted mask use in defiance of their government. Local mask factories opened. Pro-freedom activists purchased masks by the tens of thousands, and volunteers distributed them to those in need.

So for those who won't wear a mask in America because of freedom: Would you wear one in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong's government recently changed course on masks, but for several months there, masking was an act of protest against actual genocidal authoritarianism in Beijing. And as a public health measure, its results are remarkable. To date, Hong Kong's COVID-19 death count is 10, while New York City, with a similar population and density, has more than 18,000 confirmed deaths. Masks are not the only reason for that disparity, but they unquestionably contributed to it. This defiant masking was good for business, too: Hong Kong never had a full lockdown. Many restaurants and shops never closed. Even schools have reopened, with mask use, of course.

If your answer to this hypothetical is "no," your objection is not about freedom. Perhaps it's one of the other reasons I listed. Perhaps it's simple selfishness — we're all prone to it. Whatever your real motive, it isn't a principled stand for liberty if you wouldn't don a mask to defy the most powerful dictatorship on earth, a communist regime already doing the things you've warned could happen here.

If your answer is "yes" — if the politics truly do make a difference for you — let me suggest a different way of thinking about masks: Your decision to wear one should have nothing to do with the government. If wearing a mask puts you in compliance with a state or city rule, fine. If there is no such rule, also fine! The categories of "illegal" and "wrong" will never perfectly align. The reason to wear a mask is not what your mayor or governor thinks but the fact that there's a growing pile of evidence that mask use has probably the best bang for our buck of all feasible pandemic containment measures — minimally invasive and demonstrably effective. There have been many mistakes and overreaches in this pandemic response, but masks work. Wearing a mask is the right thing to do, the fulfillment of a far higher law than any executive order.

The people of Hong Kong chose to do right regardless of what their government said. Surely we can too.

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