political masks

Two people in this photo are seen wearing masks as the crowd stands for the National Anthem at the Cache County Rodeo on Thursday night. Though growing evidence shows masks to be effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19, they’ve become a politicized issue in the U.S.

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On Aug. 18, the Logan Municipal Council will vote on whether or not to extend the citywide mask mandate until Dec. 31, but tensions on the mandate may be near a boiling point.

What most consider a precaution against spreading the novel coronavirus has become a new political battlefield: individual vs. community rights, with a trench between the two.

They’ve also become flags for each person’s beliefs. There are presidential campaign masks. A fundraiser for the Cache County Democrats where a $10 donation earns the donor a “Vote. Think.” mask. A man at the liquor store was spotted with a “STD 2020: Stop the Donald” sticker stapled to his mask. And most drastically: the refusal to don any kind of face covering.

However, local leaders on both sides of the aisle can agree the latter is an “unfortunate” turn in the course of the pandemic and the political climate, in general.

“Division was already there, and it’s been getting worse,” said Chris Booth, the Cache County Republican Party chair. “I think that (masks) are just another wedge between the far-left and the far-right and a few people in between on both sides, just keep trying to drive a wedge between people.”

And while Booth said it started at the federal level, local politics are a reflection, as can be seen in the reactions to Logan’s mask mandate.

While Danny Beus, the chair of the Cache County Democrats, said when he goes shopping in Logan, “90%-plus of the people are wearing masks now,” he isn’t sure that would be the case without a mandate.

But Booth said the very principle of a mandate is what’s causing some people to remain so opposed to the measure, but it’s a tricky line to walk.

“People feel like all of their constitutional rights are being trampled on,” he said. “And it’s like, ‘Well, not all of them.’ And then there are those who say ‘it’s not the government’s role to mandate,’ but it is the role to pass laws.”

On the other hand, he said there’s the argument of “we need to be responsible for the general welfare of the people.”

This is the stance of Beus and Jon Ahlstrom, a local physician who’s also the treasurer of Cache Dems.

“It’s silly in some ways, because it’s just such a straightforward, easy thing to do to reduce the risks and reduce spread,” Ahlstrom said. “But again, I’m just shocked to find how many people really feel like they’re being infringed on by being told to wear masks.”

He said he blames national officials for the “weaponization” of masks and how they’ve divided local communities.

“I know lots of people who are otherwise good, who would, you know, give me the shirt off their back if I needed it,” he said, “but don’t seem to want to wear a mask in order to protect me and my family, and them and their families.”

However, the modern climate is just history repeating itself, according to Candi Carter Olson, an associate professor of media and society at Utah State University.

“Mask wearing and controversy over mask wearing is not new,” she said. “If you look at the 1918 flu pandemic, there was a lot of resistance to wearing masks then, too. There were propaganda campaigns posted everywhere, posters, anti-maskers in the streets doing kind of some of the things we see people doing today.”

However, there are new phenomena, like “co-opting disabilities” to avoid wearing a mask, she added.

“It’s saying, ‘We can’t wear a mask because we have a disability,’ when there are genuinely people with disabilities who cannot wear a mask, for whatever reason, ranging from sensory issues to genuine breathing problems that a mask would keep them from breathing,” Carter Olson said. “It’s the claiming it when you don’t (have those issues) that’s a problem, because then you take away the validity from the people with disabilities who genuinely have a reason for (not wearing a mask).”

And information spreads more quickly than a century ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic, social media means misinformation and false facts can reach a global audience within minutes. Misinformation can also find a foothold in groups of like-minded people who are predisposed to accept it.

Both Carter Olson and Booth said with all the conflicting information being released and shared, it can be confusing to determine what policies are best. Carter Olson added that we’re seeing the scientific method — a generally quiet process — unfold on a global scale.

“The reason people are so confused right now and there’s so much divisiveness right now is because we would get one story one week, and then the information will change two weeks later,” she said. “Well, that’s the way science works. It changes as new information comes out; we were winging it as it went along. We didn’t have somebody out there in front of us constantly explaining, ‘This is the way science works.’”

As a result, confidence in both officials and media representation has plummeted, with one in three people believing COVID-19 death totals are false. And memes and similar information being circulated on social media lead to confirmation bias and falling into virtual echo chambers.

Booth said information sharing “goes both ways,” however, and the solution is to increase civil conversation surrounding politics and decisions to prevent continuing division within the country.

“Yes, we need to be cautious we’re not allowing constitutional rights to be trampled on. But we also need to be conscious that we’re not being belligerent and we’re being smart about things,” Booth said. “I think we could — and we should — be able to sit down at the same table and have a conversation, and at the end of the conversation, walk away and still be friends.”

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