RALEIGH, N.C. — About five hours before North Carolina’s mandatory mask order went into effect on Friday, there wasn’t a mask in sight among the crowd of nearly 100 people who’d gathered near the state legislative building. They’d come to protest, and to fight for their rights, and to stand against “tyranny,” which is how some of them described the mask mandate.
The protest had been organized by ReopenNC, the group that, for months, has called for North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper to ease restrictions in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In its earliest days, the group pushed for the reopening of businesses. Now it’d gathered, in part, to fight the order requiring citizens to wear face coverings in public.
The order was but the latest overreach from “King Cooper,” Ashley Smith, one of ReopenNC’s co-founders, said during a press conference. While she spoke, a woman standing to the side said, “Don’t mask the healthy,” and another said “media lies” created fear. Moments later Smith asked those in attendance to sign a petition against the mask mandate.
“We can’t give them one inch of our freedom,” she said, and people cheered.
The protesters walked across the street to deliver two petitions — the second called for Cooper to be investigated — to Rep. Tim Moore, the state Speaker of the House. One of the protesters carried a large American flag over his shoulder, and he sarcastically dismissed a reporter’s attempt to discuss his thoughts about face coverings.
“I can’t hear you,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “You’ll have to take off your mask.” When the question became louder, the man said: “It’s about freedom. Masks are about fear. That’s all you need to know.”
The number of people who attended the protest was relatively small, compared to those who gathered in support of reopening businesses while many remained closed in North Carolina throughout April and most of May. Nonetheless, those who showed up Friday represented a not-insignificant portion of the population that not only dismisses the call to wear masks to slow the spread of the virus, but views the mandate as an intrusion on their constitutional rights.
For months, public health officials have made clear that wearing a mask, or a covering over one’s mouth and nose, is among the most effective ways to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And still, even amid a surge of cases throughout the South, masks have not been universally embraced. Like a lot of things in America in 2020, they’ve instead become a point of partisan contention, another symbol of division.
The Pew Research Center last week released data that illustrated the divide. In a poll conducted earlier this month, it found that 76% of Democrats, or those who lean Democratic, wear masks in stores all or most of the time. Among Republicans or those who lean Republican, 53% wore masks in stores all or most of the time.
In rural areas, which tend to lean more conservative, 43% of people said they saw others wearing masks all or most of the time, compared to 68% of respondents in suburban areas.
“If you look at the data, it’s very clear a majority of Americans prefer wearing the mask, right? Almost 70%,” said Vish Viswanath, a professor of health communication in the Department of Health and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health. “But it’s a very vocal minority who’s opposed to the mask, and who are getting a lot of attention.
“And it is this same vocal minority who are opposed to a variety of these governmental measures that are being taken in the last few months.”
Among other things, Viswanath studies how communication influences public health policy and practice. In some countries, he said, particularly in Europe, “the messaging and leadership is somewhat unifying” in response to the pandemic, and that has created more adherence to science-backed policies to slow the spread of the virus, like wearing face coverings.
In America, Viswanath said, political divisiveness has created an uneven response among the public.
In North Carolina, Cooper, a Democrat, has faced regular challenges from Republicans who have opposed his cautious approach to reopening the state. Cooper says he has based that approach on science and data that he and Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, regularly cite in their public press briefings.
When Cooper announced on Wednesday that face coverings would become mandatory in public, he also extended Phase Two of the state’s reopening through at least July 17. He cited concerning trends: the record 915 patients who were hospitalized in North Carolina on Tuesday due to the virus; the 1,721 lab-confirmed positive COVID-19 tests in the state on Wednesday, which was the second-highest since the pandemic began.
In issuing the mask mandate, Cooper said, “I urge everyone to be a leader in wearing face coverings. I encourage businesses to be strong in enforcing it. Slowing the spread helps our economy, and these face coverings do that. … We’re adding this new requirement because we don’t want to go backward.”
Almost immediately, the mandate became fodder for political rebukes from the right. Keith Kidwell, a state representative from Chocowinity in eastern North Carolina, argued on the House floor that wearing a mask was a personal decision. He’d already made his.
“I will not wear a mask, I don’t care what the governor says,” Kidwell said.
Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham who is the majority leader of the state Senate, released a statement in which he chastised Cooper for his order. Berger characterized it as hypocritical given Cooper’s brief, but mask-less, appearance weeks ago alongside Black Lives Matter protesters as they marched through Raleigh.
Berger’s statement didn’t include the context of the state’s rising viral case load, or the number of increased hospitalizations that led to the mask mandate. It didn’t reference the fact that, for more than a month, the state had been urging citizens to wear masks before mandating it. Instead, Berger’s response played to emotion, and undoubtedly spoke to those who’ve questioned Cooper’s response to the pandemic.
“In Roy Cooper’s North Carolina, the Governor can walk with a group of protesters with no mask on, but you can’t take your son or daughter to a playground,” Berger said in his statement. “ … We’re assured that masses of mask-less people gathered together in the streets caused no rise in cases, yet we’re now all required to wear masks because the danger is too great.”
It is that kind of partisan messaging, Viswanath said, that undermines public health policy rooted in science and data. Among more advanced nations, he said, that kind of messaging in response to the virus has become unique to the United States, where President Donald Trump has openly eschewed wearing masks.
“When political authority figures are openly defiant and, in fact, I would say even contemptuous of stuff like masks, they are doing two things,” Viswanath said. For one, he said, they’re creating “bad role-modeling,” and gaining admiration, in some circles, in the process. Second, Viswanath said, “because of the vocal nature of opposition to masks … they have sort of given permission to other people to be vocal about it.”
In North Carolina, the statewide mask mandate came months into the pandemic, after counties and other municipalities were left to decide their own rules. Durham County implemented its own policy mandating masks on April 20. Neighboring Orange County did the same earlier this month. A mask requirement went into effect in Raleigh a week before Cooper’s statewide order.
Since the virus emerged as a threat in mid-March, public health officials throughout the state had grappled with an internal debate: should they force policies onto people, like mandating masks? Or should they hope that education and information would lead citizens to make informed choices on their own?
In Wake County, Regina Petteway, the county’s director of human services, focused on education.
“We are letting people know that they should wear a mask to protect those who may be more vulnerable, or fragile, than they are,” Petteway, who is also the county’s public health director, said during a recent phone interview. “So it’s about protecting other people probably even more so than protecting yourself.
“And if you understand that, who wouldn’t want to help protect folks?”
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Before the statewide mask order, Petteway said she received questions “every day” about whether Wake County would implement its own requirement to wear face coverings. Raleigh did make it mandatory, in time, after The News & Observer and other media outlets reported scenes of crowded bars and restaurants in the Glenwood South district earlier this month.
Those scenes — younger people packed closely together in lines, waiting to enter establishments; few masks to be seen — were reminiscent of a more carefree, pre-pandemic time. They were enough for the city to take action, and also enough to question whether certain segments of the population, whether because of politics or partying, was simply unreachable.
“I feel like some people are getting it, and I feel like some people will just do what they want to do,” Petteway said. “And until it strikes close to home, they may not get it, but we need much more community grassroots person-to-person conversation about (mask-wearing), as opposed to the government coming in and immediately mandating it.”
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Soon enough, after weeks of rising positive tests and hospitalizations, North Carolina became the third state in the South to mandate masks or face coverings, following Virginia and Kentucky. Those states issued their orders in May. Around the same time, Quintana Stewart, the Orange County Health Director, was weighing whether to implement a mask mandate there.
Orange County, home to UNC-Chapel Hill, is nestled between counties that have approached the virus in contrasting ways. To the east, Durham County has been as progressive as any in the state in requiring citizens to wear face coverings in public since late April. To the west, Alamance County has been more hands off. It’s home to a racetrack, Ace Speedway, that hosted approximately 4,000 spectators at a race in late May, in defiance of the state’s order limiting crowds to no more than 25 people.
In Orange County, Stewart said, she received arguments from both sides. She heard from some who advocated for a countywide mask order. And then she heard from those, she said, who were “just adamant, and they feel like this is (the) government taking away their rights, and their individual decision as to whether or not they want to wear the masks.”
“So that tells me that from our end, maybe we need to do more with our messaging,” Stewart said. “We’re trying as best we can, trying to make this clear. But I think they don’t understand that the purpose of wearing the face covering is not about protecting you, the individual wearing the mask.
“But it’s more so about protecting your neighbors and those you may come in contact with.”
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Now that Cooper has issued a statewide order, it’s up to businesses and local law enforcement to enforce it. Several sheriff’s departments in rural North Carolina counties have already announced that they won’t be doing so. The Halifax County Sheriff’s Department is among those.
There, Wes Tripp, the sheriff, posted a brief message on Facebook after Cooper announced the order. Tripp’s message read, in part: “Your Sheriff’s Office will not be taking enforcement actions against people or businesses for not wearing masks. The wearing of a mask is a personal decision, not one of a governor in Raleigh.”
In a phone interview on Thursday, Tripp began the conversation by making clear he believes in the seriousness of the virus.
“Since this pandemic first started, I have believed it was real,” he said. “It’s not a hoax. And we do need to social distance, we do need to wear a mask and we do need to take care of our most vulnerable population. …
“In the governor’s executive order, he basically says all local enforcement are to issue citations. I’m not issuing any citations. I will go and educate the public on the violation of the governor’s order, but that’s it.”
Tripp said he and his wife planned to go out to dinner that night. They’d be wearing masks, he said. He said he wanted others to wear masks, too, but he didn’t believe it was his place, despite his standing as a law enforcement official, to enforce Cooper’s order surrounding masks.
“My opinion, and my opinion only — you can’t treat the state of North Carolina with a blanket,” Tripp said. “Halifax County is different than Wake County. It’s different than Durham County. Different than Mecklenberg County. Our numbers are nowhere in comparison.”
He agreed that the “the pandemic has become political, on a national level and a state level,” but that wearing a mask was “just what we’re supposed to do.”
“But when it comes to telling someone you must wear a mask and if you don’t, you’re going to be cited in court, I believe that’s a violation of our constitutional rights,” Tripp said.
That was the refrain the next day in Raleigh, where the small group of protesters gathered near the legislative building to voice their objection to the mask mandate. Some of the protesters carried signs referencing the Constitution while Smith, one of the leaders, argued that it was government overreach to require the public to wear masks.
She said she couldn’t wear one due to health reasons. She encouraged business owners to hang a sign on their door saying that if customers weren’t wearing a mask, the business would assume it was due to health reasons.
“That will give you a way out of having to get in the middle of someone’s health care choices,” Smith said, while her audience nodded in approval.
“Why do we need them now?”
The group walked across the street and stood in line to enter the legislature. Temperature checks were required to enter, and some of the protesters declined, arguing that it was a violation of their rights. Two women toward the end of the line carried signs. One offered a math equation: North Carolina minus Cooper equals freedom. Another said, “UN-MASK NC, REOPEN NC.”
Chad Barker carried a large American flag on a pole over his shoulder. He wore a camouflage hat that said “Make America Great Again.” Unlike others who declined to share their thoughts on masks, Barker seemed eager to share his. He said he wanted “to let people know how I feel,” and he said he was “very, very angry,” with the government, and Cooper.
Barker, 55, said wearing a mask wasn’t healthy. That it restricted oxygen.
“I mean, the biggest thing to me, is that I’m being told what to do,” he said. “That I’m being commanded that I have to do this, and I have to comply. Masks are, in it of themselves, are a health hazard. They trap disease within them. …
“I’m being told, from on high, that we need a mask. Why did we not need these masks back in March? Why didn’t we need them April? Why do we need them now? … Again, my problem with the masks and all of these restrictions is that they are arbitrary and capricious.”
It was around noon on Friday, and the sun shined hotter. Slowly, the line became shorter. Protesters made their way through the doors of the legislative building and crowded inside without masks. They showed little concern for the virus. To them, the greatest threat of these times wasn’t against their health, but their idea of their rights.
(News & Observer staff writers Brian Murphy and Dawn Baumgartner Vaughn contributed to this story.)
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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): Sen. Richard Burr