By Pam Zubeck

To wear a mask or not?

To help protect others from the deadly coronavirus or insist on the freedom to go without such protection?

To help curb a disease that’s spiking across the country due to large gatherings of people who don’t wear masks, or make a political statement that might cost lives?

Wearing a mask to guard against the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, seems like a small ask.

But masks have become a symbol of succumbing to government overreach, and not wearing them a political statement of resistance. Nebraska’s Republican Governor Pete Ricketts went so far as to threaten to withhold federal COVID relief money from counties that require people to wear masks. And fistfights have broken out across the country over wearing or not wearing masks.

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As the virus surged in Southern states, as well as in El Paso County and Colorado to a lesser degree, Gov. Jared Polis ordered on June 26 that visitors to government buildings wear masks. (On June 30, he announced a shutdown of bars and nightclubs as of July 1.)

Also on June 26, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers called a news conference to plead with citizens to #MaskUpCOS. (El Paso County recorded its highest single-day new infection count, 76, on July 2. The county had 56 new cases on June 25, 55 on July 3 and 56 on July 6.)

Regardless of the widely held scientific tenet that wearing a mask will curtail the virus’ reach, Polis’ June 26 order is the only rule imposed statewide so far that mandates mask-wearing.

But even that rule contains exceptions, and there’s no government mandate that anyone wear a mask inside businesses, churches and non-governmental buildings.

“Members of the public coming into [El Paso] County offices cannot be refused service if they choose not to wear a mask,” county spokesperson Ryan Parsell says via email, “and anyone with a health condition does not need to wear one.”

Even if someone simply refuses to wear a mask, the county can’t turn them away, Parsell notes, saying, “… in some cases, such as DHS [Department of Human Services], we cannot legally refuse service.”

The mask question bedevils a nation once viewed as a world leader in health care and science but now claims the highest number of COVID infections and deaths on the planet.

When the virus began its run across America in the spring, wearing masks wasn’t seen as essential. In fact, the nation’s premier public health agency, the Centers for Disease Control, didn’t strongly recommend wearing masks until June 2. (Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, have worn face coverings for months.) 

Despite indisputable evidence that face coverings help prevent the virus’ spread, President Donald Trump still refuses to wear a mask and Vice President Mike Pence finally urged citizens to use them on June 29.

But most citizens get it.

The Pew Research Center reported in late June that 65 percent of American adults said they wore a mask in stores or other businesses all or most of the time in the past month.

The issue splits down party lines, with Pew reporting that 76 percent of Democrats and those leaning left say they wear a mask all or most of the time, compared to 53 percent of Republicans and those leaning right.

The more extreme their political views, the greater the divide: Conservative Republicans are least likely to wear a mask, 49 percent, compared to 83 percent of liberal Democrats.

As to questions of the government’s right to impose mask-wearing, the American Bar Association says, “Governors have broad powers to invoke restrictions in their state” in the case of a pandemic or some other public health emergency.

Specifically, the Poynter Institute says in a briefing for journalists on its website that “yes,” the government can force you to wear a mask.

“Think of it like this,” the website says, “The government has the right to ban smoking in public places because your smoking can affect my health. And some places have signs that say, ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service.’ Just add ‘no mask’ to the sign.”

Exceptions include not wearing a mask for health reasons.

El Paso County Public Health spokesperson Michelle Hewitt says in an email that those include people with chronic lung disease, those under 2 years of age and some individuals with claustrophobia.

Asked why a person with lung disease would be wise to not wear a mask amid a deadly pandemic, Hewitt explains, “That’s not to say that all people with lung disease shouldn’t wear a mask, just an example of a medical condition that may preclude some individuals from wearing one. I connected with [Public Health’s medical director] Dr. [Robin] Johnson on this, and she mentioned that for some individuals with lung conditions, wearing a mask may make breathing more difficult.”

But she adds, “[T]hey would be included in the vulnerable population, which is why it’s so critical that others around these vulnerable individuals wear masks.”

Legal experts have cautioned against merchants being too aggressive in requiring masks at the risk of violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires accommodation of disabilities.

But while they can’t legally ask a person what their disability is, they can ask if not wearing a mask is an accommodation and what benefit they would realize from not wearing one.

Under federal law, employers can require their employees to wear masks, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, unless they would post a safety issue.

For all the anti-maskers out there, the bottom line question is: Do you have a constitutional right not to wear a mask? The answer is “no,” Poynter’s website says. See American Bar Association statement on state powers in a pandemic.

Closer to home, Polis and Suthers donned masks April 2 and urged others to do the same. They’ve modeled that precautionary measure ever since. Many others followed their lead, including Dr. Leon Kelly, El Paso County coroner.

“Our official stance is that masks should be worn whenever you are around anyone not in your immediate family or social group,” Kelly advises. “The current scientific data proves mask use reduces the spread of infection and can prevent outbreaks in settings where social distancing cannot be ensured.”

He adds that failure to follow those simple steps in places like Texas and Florida have caused a resurgence and record-breaking spread, “which has caused additional economic damage, the slowing of their re-opening, increasing hospitalizations, and caused further harm to our national economy.”

Amid various measures, including Polis’ and Suthers’ entreaties to wear masks, Colorado’s virus growth rate fell as those of most other states climbed.

Still, El Paso County commissioners routinely lambaste Polis’ management of the virus and host a steady flow of mostly unmasked citizens at their board meetings who decry the idea of mask-wearing and shutting down businesses in efforts to stem the spread.

Thus, six months into the pandemic, many people refuse to mask-up in El Paso County and elsewhere.

Drop in on a few businesses. While you’ll find most if not all employees wearing masks, many customers apparently can’t be bothered.

Ace Hardware, King Sooper’s, Walgreens (whose business, ironically, pivots around health) and Walmart are examples of stores that do not require customers to wear masks.

“I’m not exactly sure why,” a Walmart worker says when asked why customers don’t have to mask up. “We recommend it. It’s not mandatory.”

But at Costco, masks are mandatory. Customers are told to cover their mouths and noses “to help protect our employees and members,” a policy that kicked in May 4, according to its website.

Asked how much push back the company gets about its mask policy, local Costco stores referred questions to the corporate office, which couldn’t be reached for comment.

City and county offices now require workers and visitors to wear masks, absent a medical reason, in compliance with Polis’ order. The Pikes Peak Library District issued a statement last week saying face coverings will be required for all who enter, and the Colorado Springs Airport imposed mandatory masks starting July 6. (The airport provides them free of charge.)

But the governor’s order doesn’t include private businesses, offices and other buildings.

Still, Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC President and CEO Dirk Draper has said at news conferences and in media interviews the agency “strongly” encourages businesses and their customers to wear face masks in public.”

Kelly goes a step further. “We would encourage all businesses to make mask use by their customers mandatory or to at least strongly encourage their use,” he says. “It is unacceptable to harm your neighbors, our business owners, and our collective economy by failing to take simple and very clear steps necessary to move us all forward.”

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