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News >  Spokane

The virus isn’t political, but masks have become a fraught symbol as officials urge people to wear them

"About 1/3 of the people are wearing masks," says Karen Ryden as she leaves the Spokane Valley Mall on Tuesday, May 26. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
"About 1/3 of the people are wearing masks," says Karen Ryden as she leaves the Spokane Valley Mall on Tuesday, May 26. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Tina Murphy and Brandy Dayton drove more than two hours from the Tri-Cities to stroll through River Park Square mall for its partial reopening this week. And when they arrived, they didn’t put on masks.

Murphy said the debate over wearing masks has made it easy to tell conservatives from liberals – just check their face for a mask.

That symbolism has brought new tension to her daily life. She feels judged even at the grocery store.

“It’s like a flashback to my punk rock days,” Murphy said. “I’m a rebel again, and it really feels like people are staring.”

Rebellion isn’t the only thing driving Murphy and Dayton away from masks. Murphy said she felt wearing a mask made her more vulnerable to the virus because she couldn’t catch a breath. Dayton said it made her anxious, like she was breathing her own carbon dioxide all day.

“People shouldn’t be upset that I’m not wearing a mask if I keep 6 feet distance,” Dayton said.

For some people in the area wearing a mask has come to represent giving up their freedom, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said.

The CDC recommends mask wearing and cloth coverings over the mouth and nose to prevent COVID-19 spread through droplets. Earlier this month, Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz issued an unenforceable directive that said residents must wear face coverings at indoor or confined public settings when they will be within 6 feet of another person with whom they don’t live.

Evidence shows east Asian countries’ early adoption of masks prevented the kind of coronavirus spread seen in countries with less mask-wearing, according to an April study by researchers at University of Cambridge and University of Science and Technology in Hong Kong.

But polls show a party divide on whether to wear masks – 51% of Republicans, compared to 64% for Democrats, reported wearing face masks outside the home in an April survey of over 22,000 Americans. Another April survey found 73% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans said they had worn a mask or face-covering in public.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said she recognizes the new political tensions building over whether or not to wear masks, that she understands both sides and that, for people with certain medical conditions, masks might not be safe.

But she’s worn a mask everywhere. She’s posted videos in masks and recommended them every step of the way, she said. Her goal is to move ahead into Phase 3, and widespread mask-wearing will be the most efficient way to get Spokane there.

“I think people just need to get used to wearing a mask,” Woodward said. “It’s not mandatory, it’s a directive, because we have personal freedoms. It’s the very least we can do, and it’s probably the most effective thing we can do.”

At NorthTown mall, Amy Noriega, her two kids and her mother-in-law went without masks last week. She said the media has blown the coronavirus out of proportion. She and her children were tired of feeling like “prisoners” at home.

“If people are really so scared of getting sick, they should act like this for the normal flu,” Noriega said.

While many share Noriega’s doubts about the severity of COVID-19 and the need to wear masks, Beggs predicts mask-wearing will become the new normal soon. But like other people, he’s sometimes forgone wearing one, despite his efforts to do so. He recently found himself at the grocery store parking lot without a mask and asked himself whether he should drive back home.

But, he said, we’re still learning.

“When we saw pictures of people dying in 9/11 we said, ‘Yep, we’re going to stand in lines for security even though the odds of an attack at the Spokane airport are really low,’ ” Beggs said. “There’s no way around it, but it doesn’t destroy our lifestyle. It’s just an inconvenience.”

Bill Kabasenche, a professor of philosophy in Washington State University’s School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs, said it’s hard to think once the political brain is activated.

Whenever an issue gets politicized, he said, it seems people stop looking at the evidence objectively, and instead start applying their own political views.

Every semester he sees smart students struggle to think through ethics for hot-button issues because they’re fighting with a party preference.

For most people rallying against wearing masks, arguments seem to be about personal freedom and body autonomy. But we all have limits to our freedoms, Kabasenche said.

“The best argument against that view would be you should be free to do what you want until your freedom infringes on the freedom or well-being of another person,” Kabasenche said. “Your freedom stops where another person’s health and life is at risk.”

But for some shoppers going maskless, politics has nothing to do with it. Wearing masks just seems useless.

For Mark Miller, who was shopping at River Park Square on Tuesday, wearing a mask meant protecting people around him. But he took it off in many spaces because the chance of COVID-19 infection in Spokane seems low, he said.

He and his teenage children came to the mall because their lack of contact had started “grinding” on them, and determined the benefits outweighed the small risk.

But the freedom of a healthy city is hard fought, said Brian Coddington, the city of Spokane’s director of communications and marketing.

“The risk is perceived to be so low because we’ve done a good job of following the directive and looking out for each other,” Coddington said.

The city hasn’t had many conversations about deescalating political strain around wearing masks, Woodward said, but she finds leading by example more effective than judgment.

In every business she’s walked into that opened under Phase 2, she’s seen all staff masked. She said it’s good for business, too, as it helps instill consumer confidence.

Shaming people into wearing masks won’t work, Woodward said, but time will.

Beggs said he sees the majority of people moving together as a community.

“This virus is not political,” Beggs said. “We’re in a war with a virus, not with government, not any politician. … Most people understand.”

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