David T. of Rochester prefers not to use his full name when discussing the issue of face masks.
That's how political — how heated — the issue of wearing a cloth mask across your face has become. Just recently, his wife, who works at an area establishment, was berated by a customer when the mask she was wearing slipped down below her nose. The shaming has been directed at other workers as well.
When a friend of his strolled into a local grocery store without a mask, he was "verbally assaulted" by another customer.
"I myself have been told that I am going to cause harm and/or death to others if I don't wear one," David said. "My feeling is that this has become more emotional than fact-based."
The mask issue has become terribly political — another example of our left/right divide. How did it get this way? Go to a store, and the split between mask-wearers and the mask-less is about 50/50. David doesn't explicitly say he doesn't wear a mask every time he goes out in public, but social distancing is his preferred strategy, he said.
Why aren't more people wearing masks? Interviews with David and others suggest that shaming and browbeating people into wearing them may be a counter-effective strategy.
Anti-maskers also argue that urging or requiring face masks, such as the mandate enacted by the Rochester City Council for city-operated or city-owned facilities, is an infringement on their civil liberties.
Others argue that the models used to predict deaths and COVID-19 cases have been so off the mark that it has invalidated anything the experts have to say about masks.
Others suggest it's a masculinity thing. "Real men don't wear masks." Or it's a plot to destroy President Donald Trump's re-election chances, a caller to the PB said.
Mask-wearing and other public health rules to slow the spread of COVID-19, others argue, have been inconsistently and hypocritically applied. Why was it appropriate for Gov. Tim Walz, who was wearing a mask, to attend a funeral for George Floyd that brought together a couple hundred people, when others couldn't watch their son or daughter graduate or bury a family member at a church service?
But the biggest reason mask-wearing hasn't taken hold, a Mayo Clinic infectious disease expert said, is that the coronavirus pandemic remains elusive to most people. For all the media's preoccupation with the virus and despite the fact that more than 500,000 people have died globally and 125,000 in the U.S., most people don't know a single person who is sick or died from the disease.
"This is exactly the problem," said Dr. Priya Sampathkumar, a Mayo Clinic doctor and infectious disease expert. "People aren't aware. They're seeing numbers on a dashboard. It doesn't really make sense to you if you don't connect with the numbers."
Sampathkumar said she encounters this cavalier attitude in the medical community. Co-workers have dismissed the coronavirus as no big deal, because they have never seen a case.
Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci warned that at the current trajectory, the U.S. could see daily cases reach 100,000.
"I can tell you the cases are coming," Sampathkumar said about the Rochester area. "It's not a surge. It's not a flood of patients. But it's a steady stream of patients we get, and, yes, they are very sick."
She says mask-wearing is essential to combating the coronavirus. She said that if everyone wore masks, it would be possible to push the virus down to very low levels. A cloth mask lowers the risk of transmission by 50% to 70%, she said.
"That's a powerful number," Sampathkumar said.
Yet even those who support mask-wearing say they worry about the stigmatizing effects the debate is creating.
Tim Moore said he, his wife and kids wear face masks whenever they are out in public. They see it as a simple sign of respect for others. But his 20-year-old autistic son, who is non-verbal and dependent upon his parents for his daily needs, can't wear one.
"My son simply cannot wear a mask. It is a traumatic experience for him," Moore said in an email. "My fear is that we will no longer be able to take him out to restaurants and the like if he is forced to wear one. Already singled out by his handicap, I fear mandatory usage of masks will further serve to isolate and expose him as different than the rest of society."
For Maria, a 27-year-old Rochester-area woman, the issue of masks has layers of complication. She considers it a civil rights issue, but she defers to the policies of local businesses that mandate mask-wearing.
But there is a psychological and physical dimension to wearing masks that is unsettling to her. Maria is a massage therapist. The first day she went back to work after Walz's mandated business shutdowns, she quit. She found donning a mask for lengthy periods of time cut off her flow of oxygen and made her nearly pass out. She is now unemployed.
Maria also worked for a boss who lacked sympathy for her political and health concerns about masks.
"You work for a boss that doesn't believe in those things," she said, and "it starts to affect me mentally. No job is worth my health."