At a grocery store in Alexandria, Virginia, customer Laura Shafor was dismayed about a couple who weren’t wearing masks and were about to enter the store.
“They put the rest of us in danger of getting the coronavirus,” she said.
Another customer, Joshua Wright, wasn’t concerned, saying, “I don’t know anybody who has gotten sick with the virus. If I get it, I get it.”
Wright, 28, said he only started wearing a face covering after the state of Virginia on Friday began mandating that people must wear masks inside public buildings and businesses.
The problem with “'I’m young, I’m healthy, I don’t care if I get infected,’ is that even with mild or no symptoms, young, healthy people can be a very important part of the chain of transmission to other people of all different ages,” Dr. David Aronoff, director of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, said.
Aronoff said some people still haven’t gotten the message that “my breath can be lethal to another person” and that wearing a mask makes a difference in helping to stop the transmission of the disease.
With more than 100,000 people who have died from COVID-19, the United States has the highest death toll of any country in the world.
Besides Virginia, many other places in the U.S. have mandated or strongly recommended that masks be worn in public places.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a mask or cloth face covering in public areas where social distancing is difficult to maintain.
Other reasons people do not wear a face covering are as varied as the individuals themselves, said David Abrams, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Global Public Health Department at New York University.
He said, it could be “I’m not going to get ill from the coronavirus, so why wear a mask, or even if I do, it won’t be that severe.” There are also superficial reasons, like it’s embarrassing to wear one or “people can’t see me when I smile,” he added.
But for some, including Latinos, Asians and African Americans, there is concern that masks may draw unwanted attention.
Videos of black men who say they were racially profiled for wearing face masks have appeared on the internet. This includes two black men who recorded themselves being followed by a police officer at a Walmart store.
“I think the issue is that black men are stereotyped as criminals and treated disproportionately violently by police,” Michael Jeffries, an American studies professor who focuses on race and politics at Wellesley College, said. “So there is a fear among some African American men that wearing a mask might appear threatening to someone, and that might lead to increased interactions with police and suspicion from shop owners and pedestrians.”
However, Jeffries said he didn’t think “a majority of black folks are hesitant to wear masks.”
Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African American studies at Duke University, added, “Two months ago, I could be criminalized because of wearing a mask.”
Now, “I could be even more criminalized because I’m not wearing one,” he said.
Some people rebel against the idea of wearing a face covering because they don’t like being told what to do, said Jonas Kaplan, a University of California neuroscientist who studies how the brain works. For them, “wearing a mask is a violation of individual freedom, and so not wearing a mask becomes a symbol of individualism.”
Kaplan said masks are becoming “very politicized,” especially by conservatives who think that wearing them is “a sign of liberalism.”
President Donald Trump and some other Republican officials have indicated they don’t want to wear a mask.
Professor Abrams thinks if the president doesn’t want to wear one, then it gives the perception that other Americans also don’t have to either.
“We know from psychology that role models are very powerful influences on individual behavior,” Abrams said.
Neal, of Duke University, said Trump is “trying to parlay this idea that he’s showing strength by not wearing a mask.”
Aronoff, of Vanderbilt Medical Center, said he believes the idea of wearing a mask needs to be destigmatized, perhaps through public service announcements. He also said if masks became fashionable, with personalized designs such as a favorite sports team, people may become more used to wearing them.