OPINION: Can’t hide from a mask divide that’s now fully exposed

To mask or not to mask has become a political flashpoint, even for the presidential campaign.

As I hurried to a press conference in connection with the case of Ahmaud Arbery, the black man killed near Brunswick, Georgia, I had a quick concern: The face mask I kept in the console of my car was gone.

I briefly considered turning around to drive home and get another one, but there was no time. As I rolled up, I saw the suspect’s attorneys and the masked media scrum squeezed into a narrow slice of space atop a hill next to an office. I did not dare head up the steps to join them. I did not want to tower above WSB-radio’s Veronica Waters, snorting whatever germs I had all over my colleagues.

I didn't want to be that guy. So I stood back from the pack and heard most of the conference — and later picked up a tape of the proceedings from Veronica.

I rarely wear a mask when heading outside into the open spaces. But during this coronavirus pandemic, it’s considered good form to wear one inside public places, such as a store.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a regular face mask doesn't protect you as much as it does other people. You're doing it for others. It's a solid example of having a sense of community — as in not being communicable.

To mask or not to mask has become a political flashpoint, even for the presidential campaign, as a black-masked Joe Biden laid a wreath at Memorial Park in Delaware while the bare-faced President Donald Trump observed Memorial Day at Arlington National Cemetery.

There’s now such a thing called “mask shaming,” which means different things in different places.

In New York, which has again been ground zero in this crisis, a maskless shopper was hounded from a grocery store by irate fellow shoppers.

But in North Dakota, an emotional Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, said the debate over masks is a "senseless dividing line," and he urged residents to "dial up your empathy and your understanding" when coming across someone wearing a face mask. Yes, WEARING a mask. Apparently, people wearing masks out there are thought to be slanted politically. Or just weak.

“We’re all in this together and there’s only one battle we’re fighting,” Burgum said. “And that’s the battle of the virus.”

It’s been said that an event threatening all of mankind — such as an alien invasion — would bring us together. But humans, as it turns out, would break into various conspiratorial factions arguing about who wanted the Martians to come here in the first place.

With this in mind, my wife and I went out on Memorial Day to accomplish a number of errands. The state has famously been opened up for business by Gov. Brian Kemp, who has been seen out and about wearing a mask. In fact, Vice President Mike Pence was here last week with Governor Shotgun to tell him what a good job he's been doing opening up the state. Never mind that the backslapping came a month after President Trump said the reopening was a knuckleheaded stunt.

Gov. Brian Kemp wore a mask and urged all Georgians to do the same after touring a temporary medical pod for non-critical COVID-19 patients at the North Campus of Phoebe Putney Health System on May 5, 2020, in Albany. (CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com)

On our route we noticed state Department of Transportation signs on I-85 telling us: "Masks are in. Everyone is wearing one."

Well, not everyone. But most everyone. While inside a building, that is.

A visit to Target in central DeKalb County found at least 80% of shoppers and all employees wearing masks inside. The Lowe’s in nearby Brookhaven buzzed with activity and displayed a similar rate of masked observance.

Through our travels it appeared that those not doing the mask thing were more often than not middle-aged and older white guys.

That seems to be backed up by what the polls say, that Democrats are more often masked than Republicans, and blacks more often than whites. A study just completed by the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project shows that 89% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans say they’ve worn a mask in public. African Americans are a bit more likely than whites, 86% to 83%. And 88% of females to 81% of males.

That makes sense. Blacks have seen more carnage from the disease, women are more empathetic, and guys, well, we’re more hard-headed.

Chris Harvey, a parishioner of St. Thomas More Catholic Church in Decatur, at a recent training session to be an usher for soon-to-return Masses. As he put it, “It’s non-negotiable here. No mask? No Jesus for you!” (Photo courtesy of Chris Harvey)

Robert Griffin, research director for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, said data upends the narrative that there’s “some sort of cultural war” about wearing masks. He says people are largely trying to work for the good.

“The idea that there is a sizable portion of the population who’s somehow violently opposed to this behavior that public health officials are advising just doesn’t seem to line up,” he told USA Today.

The survey above simply asks whether you’ve worn a mask. It doesn’t ask how often or when.

Another study, conducted in Minnesota, asks respondents if they've worn a mask in the previous week, and the divide is larger: 92% Democrats to 53% Republicans, and 80% women to 68% men.

The divide seems to grow as the lockdowns and closures continue.

But a visit to Perimeter Mall in Dunwoody on Monday disabused me of the notion that it’s mostly white men going maskless. A 45-minute trek inside the mall found that about 60% of shoppers were wearing masks, and that the mask-free demographic was certainly a very mixed gathering. In fact, those without masks were more often than not people of color.

Wearing a mask is now part of daily life, but this has led to an extra hurdle for people who are hard of hearing.

The news is filled with pieces of info that support or debunk one’s theory about who is being considerate, observant or cautious.

Over the weekend there were images of 4,000 folks crowding into Ace Speedway in North Carolina, perhaps only one in 10 wearing any kind of mask. But before those of you on the left get those images and spread them on social media, be sure to include video of a guy tossing cash from the top of his car and gathering a crowd of partygoers in Daytona Beach, Florida.

One crowd white, one black. Both irresponsible.

I’d like to believe the pollster quoted above is correct, that most people want to do what is right and maybe there’s some good way out of all this. That maybe, just maybe, we all might unite in a fight against the Martians.

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