NOTE: This story is part of “Together / Alone,” a column by Spectrum News Chief National Political Reporter Josh Robin that examines life in these historic times.
There, all over the world, on the streets of Seoul, South Korea, they had been so common and casual that no one paid them much attention, except the newly arrived American.
Grace Jun had just graduated from college and left her native New York for a design job in her parents’ hometown. The streets of the hectic Gangnam section resembled Manhattan, but for a few crucial differences, including these: workers at nighttime restaurants wore face masks, often wore not so much to keep them from getting sick – but to protect themselves from colds through spread .
“The way I see it is when you wear a mask, you’re actually polite,” she would say later.
Grace Jun said that South Korean residents are used to wearing face masks, often to prevent them from spreading a disease to other people. Here, people wear face masks while keeping social distance during a service at the Chogyesa Temple in South Korea. (AP Photo / Ahn Young-joon)
Half a world away and 10 years later, Bob Hall also started noticing masks for the first time – mostly in urban areas and not in the East Texas countryside where he lives. He didn’t love them and really didn’t like them when governments started demanding them. He only wore a mask once: when he got into a business and got one, with the option of putting it on or leaving it.
Masks do not evoke politeness in Hall’s mind; in fact, they raise serious concerns about how far the country had strayed from what he thought were his promises of individual freedom.
“It adds unnecessary fear to people,” Hall told me about masks, “that there is a greater threat than what there really is.”
Jun and Hall never met and you may never have heard of it. They are not necessarily opposed to each other, but both play different roles in the latest skirmish of the now-ongoing American cultural wars: a few inches of dust on your face during a pandemic that is worsening in the United States.
Public health experts say that wearing a face mask helps the wearer prevent it from spreading a disease like the coronavirus (although it’s not so much to catch it from someone without a mask that’s infected).
Earlier this year, when the virus was on his death march through New York, where she now lives, Jun sat by a sewing machine. She is an assistant professor of fashion at the Parsons School of Design, with expertise in making clothing for the elderly and disabled. This time she created a DIY mask set; nothing ridiculously difficult or luxurious, but it did the job.
Some national media noted it. Before long, her instructions on YouTube would be seen more than 400,000 times.
“Looks like it’s something you should do,” she told me about wearing a mask, and a lot of them still didn’t. “It just indicates that you are aware of what is happening and that you don’t care.”
Hall, 78, is a Republican Senator in Texas – a conservative tea party who is willing to interfere with his party’s higher ranks, including Governor Greg Abbott. Amid a spate of COVID cases, Abbott said earlier this month that local officials could require companies to wear face masks for customers.
It came after Abbott had a lighter hand on the matter: he reopened the state economy before many thought it was safe, and banned local governments from imposing sanctions on people who don’t wear masks in public.
Abbott’s new position increased the chances of wearing masks, just as the cases in Texas got dangerously high. But Hall instead wondered if the virus led to another danger.
Texas has now come full circle from a dictatorship to a republic to a sovereign American state. Now it seems that as long as we allow the actions of the governor … we are expected to live as if we have a monarchy, ”he posted his website.
The comment also caught the attention of the national media. And even if poll in April, the vast majority of Americans showed that they wore masks outdoors, Hall’s resistance slashed at what President Trump had long been telegraphing.
President Trump returned to the campaign trail in June with a demonstration in Tulsa. Many in the stands went without masks. (File)
At recent Trump meetings, masks were optional – and it seemed that most of the audience decided to opt out.
“I don’t think I’m going to do it,” says Trump said in April; a month later he retweeted someone who joked about Joe Biden wearing one, and retweeted another person who wrote “Image of Biden in black mask endorses culture of silence, slavery and social death.”
In return, the Democratic nominee uses a wearing picture of herself the mask that Trump mocked on his Twitter profile.
President Trump is “an absolute fool” to scoff at wearing face masks, Biden told CNN. “Presidents are supposed to lead, not to be foolish, and to be false masculine.”
In the meantime, tens of thousands took to the streets in recent weeks following the death of George Floyd. Many wore masks, some with reports of police brutality. But not everyone wore a face covering and was accused of double standards.
To some extent, masks are an extension of an old American controversy: an uneasiness on the part of the government and elite experts; a struggle between being told what is best for everyone and what someone thinks is best for themselves.
A Black Lives Matter march in Orlando in May. (File)
Others would argue that the mask debate is the last unfortunate chapter of people’s increasing reluctance to follow science. For example, the claim that seasonal flu is more deadly in the United States; it is not. (Her estimated up to 62,000 people died of the flu last season; so far, more than 120,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the US).
But scientists’ pleas to wear masks are complicated by suggesting earlier this year that we do the exact opposite.
“Well, this is a really new virus for us,” explains Dr. Ruth Berggren, director of the Center for Medical Humanities and Ethics at the Health Science Center at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “We are all trying to provide advice that responds to new data.”
The advice she and others are now emphasizing is to wear a mask – any mask is better than none – when it is less than two meters away from anyone other than your close relatives, for an extended period of time, especially indoors.
Masks help bend the bend, she says.
She says the spike is starting to emphasize her local health care in cases: When we spoke, doctors were just fed up with a leading treatment for two patients.
“People have said bluntly, ‘Oh, this is a violation of civil liberties,'” she said. “It’s actually much easier for me to put a small mask on my face than to take off almost all my clothes and take off my shoes and take my laptop out of my carrying case to get on an airplane.”
As of this writing, in South Korea, where Jun first saw all those people wearing masks, less than one in 100,000 people died from the coronavirus.
“How South Korea smoothed the curve” appeared in my search engine.
In the United States, the number is now close to 37 deaths per 100,000 people.
And just now, another headline just appeared: On a new record day with infections in Texas, Governor Abbott is now calling on Texans to stay home.