After shopping at a liquor store without covering her face last week in Lakeside, Colorado, Ruby Musso knows better than most what it’s like to be mask-shamed.
First, a masked shopper flipped her off and charged at her with a shopping cart. Then Ms. Musso tangled with store employees, at one point calling them “Nazis.” Police arrived but declined to charge her. Afterward, she posted a video of the encounter, which was met with a deluge of social-media criticism.
“I just really tried to stand my ground with that because I feel like it’s really important,” Ms. Musso told KDVR-TV in Denver, adding that she suffers from panic attacks and anxiety. “There are so many reasons why someone is not wearing a mask.”
Deaths from the coronavirus may have plunged, but if viral videos are any indication, mask-shaming is spiking as more states and localities enact face-covering orders aimed at slowing the spread of the infection.
Experts attribute the conflicts to a combustible brew of pandemic panic, heightened political tensions, conflicting messages on the science, and an individualistic society in which people tend to bristle when told by their fellow Americans what they can and cannot do.
“A lot of things are colliding: One is the politicization of the coronavirus and our response to it, including masks, but I think we’re also running into what a personal decision it is, not just what we wear but what we put on our face,” said Seth J. Gillihan, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
While plenty of leading Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have urged Americans to wear masks, blue-state governors have led the way in issuing statewide face-covering orders, while red-state governors have tended to shy away from mandates.
The mask divide comes on top of the COVID-19 political split between pro-shutdown Democrats and pro-reopening Republicans.
“If we think masks are associated with liberals and we’re conservative, then putting on a mask might feel like identifying or branding myself as a liberal,” said Mr. Gillihan, who wrote a May 6 article on the subject for Psychology Today. “And on the flip side, if somebody’s not wearing a mask, a liberal might assume that person’s conservative. And then our egos get involved and all bets are off.”
Even though Ms. Musso has been widely mask-shamed, it could have been worse: At least three people have been killed in U.S. mask confrontations.
• Sean Ernest Ruis, 43, was shot and killed July 14 by an Eaton County sheriff’s deputy in Delta Township, Michigan, after he stabbed a 77-year-old man who argued with him over not wearing a mask at a Quality Dairy store.
• Jerry Lewis, a 50-year-old 1990s-era rapper known as Madd Head, was shot and killed July 8 by a security guard after an altercation over his lack of a mask at the Green Farm Market in Gardena, California. The guard, Umeir Corniche Hawkins, 38, has been charged with murder.
• Calvin Munnerlyn, 43, a security guard at the Family Dollar in Flint, Michigan, was killed May 1 after refusing to admit an unmasked woman. Her brother, Ramonyea Bishop, 23, was charged with returning to the store and killing the guard, and three other family members also face charges.
Two of those slayings occurred in Michigan, where Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently expanded the statewide mask order. Michigan retailers have balked at being required to enforce the order, while at least two sheriff’s offices have said they will not issue citations for violations, according to Bridge Michigan.
Asked about the recent mask-related violence, Ms. Whitmer told reporters last week that wearing a cloth facial covering “should not be this flashpoint that it seems to be.”
“I cannot ever pretend that I understand someone who would become murderous over wearing a piece of cloth on your face,” she said on ClickOnDetroit. “But what I can say is that violence is never the solution.”
Elsewhere, governors are calling out the mask-shaming. Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, has urged residents to wear facial coverings voluntarily but also to avoid confronting those who insist on appearing in public mask-free.
“It does no one any good for you to shame someone because they’re wearing a mask,” Mr. Reeves said at a July 14 press conference. “It also does no one any good for you to shame someone because they’re not wearing a mask because I can tell you those who are naturally skeptical, while I personally disagree with that, if you try to shame them, it’s going to make their resolve even stronger.”
That tension was a factor in Winn-Dixie’s decision to break from the pack of major retailers requiring face masks, including CVS, Publix, Target and Walmart, issuing a statement Monday citing the “undue friction between our customers and associates by regulating mask mandates,” according to Fox 13.
Certainly Americans are feistier when it comes to masks than those in most other countries. A Premise Data rolling survey found 58% of respondents from 106 countries said they always wear a mask outside of their homes, versus 40% of U.S. residents. Another 22% of Americans said they never wear masks.
Why not? The No 1 reason given was “I do not believe facemasks are effective for preventing the spread of COVID-19, with 30%, while 29% said they were uncomfortable.
University of British Columbia professor Steven Taylor, author of “The Psychology of Pandemics,” said there’s a term for the “highly allergic reaction” that some people have to restrictions on autonomy and freedom of choice: psychological reactance.
“The reluctance to wear masks is a whole bunch of different reasons,” said Mr. Taylor. “For some people, they don’t like wearing masks because they seem unnecessary, or they see the whole threat situation as being overblown. Other people don’t like wearing masks because they’re uncomfortable, they feel self-conscious, or they feel weird, or they doubt their efficacy.”
One reason for the doubts: For two months, U.S. and World Health Organization authorities recommended against wearing face masks, in large over concerns about a run on the hospital-grade N95 mask, before doing an about-face.
After reviewing the scientific literature, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a July 14 statement that “cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19 that could reduce the spread of the disease, particularly when used universally within communities.”
As a result, “there’s a 180-degree turn where we’re told emphatically don’t wear masks, and now we’re told to wear them, so that undermined public confidence,” said Mr. Taylor. “The public loses confidence in their health authorities or leaders, and that contributes to non-compliance and anxiety and so forth.”
Research ranges from a University of California-Davis Health study July 6 that found mask-wearing decreases the risk of infection to the wearer by 65%, to a July 16 statement by researchers on the University of Minnesota Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy website: “Wearing a cloth mask or face covering could be better than doing nothing, but we simply don’t know at this point.”
As far as Mr. Taylor is concerned, “It really makes sense from a better-safe-than-sorry perspective. It can’t hurt. And it’s better to wear a mask than be on a respirator.”
Virtually every mandate has a medical exception for those with respiratory issues or other conditions that make mask-wearing risky, something that the mask-shamers may want to remember the next time they feel tempted to unload on an unmasked shopper in the grocery line.
“I think it would be great if people asked first, ‘Do you have a medical condition that prevents you from wearing a mask?’” said Mr. Gillihan, author of “The CBT Deck.” “Because a lot of people do. If you are prone to panic when you put on a mask and someone’s forcing you to, and you can’t buy food or necessities, I can imagine an extreme reaction.”
• Jessica Chasmar contributed to this report.