Why are Masks Political?

Leadership matters (as does culture).

In recent weeks I have had more than one conversation, both in-person and online, with friends, family, and colleagues about mask-wearing. Quite frequently someone will say something to the effect of “I don’t understand why this has to be political.” Setting aside that to a political scientist the first thing that comes to mind when someone says something along those lines is “everything is political,” let’s look at two variables: culture and leadership.

Without a doubt, the fact that American political culture is fiercely independent often in a very simplistic “you can’t tell me what to do” kind of way is a major contributor. Examples of this that are quite well-known and also analogous to mask-wearing are using seat belts and wearing bicycle and motorcycle helmets.

To go anecdotal before sharing data, I recall when seat belt laws were going into effect in the 1980s that my grandparents would gripe incessantly about having to use them. Early on they would just drape them over their arms or laps to make it look like they were wearing them in case the police saw them (so as to avoid a ticket). Later, when the shoulder strap was unavoidable they would clip it in such a way as to relieve the unbearable pressure of the strap across their body (and in a way that made the passive restraint system essentially pointless). They would regale us with tales of people who crashed into lakes and drowned because they couldn’t get out of their seat belts or others who would have lived had they just been thrown free of the car (exactly why I can’t recall–perhaps it was on fire).

Those attitudes were pretty prevalent at the time. Note the following from a 2013 book by Coons and Weber:

In the 1980s, for instance, the initial introduction of seatbelt laws in various states elicited objections and grassroots movement against the policy…In the early 1980s, only about 25 percent of Americans supported fines for riding without seatbelts…

Source: Coons, Christian and Michael Weber. 2013 Paternalism: Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p 213.

The passage goes on to note that by 1988 support was at 54% and was at 87% in a 2005 poll.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study from 2008 tells a similar tale in terms of usage:

It should be noted that both changes in attitude and practice came about as a result of a significant national consensus concerning the public health benefits of seat belts.

Although it is worth noting I found a 2002 essay (when looking for polling data) from the Foundation for Economic Education that claimed such laws “infringe a person’s constitutional rights” and contains this passage which sounds very much like my grandparents’ laments:

While seat-belt use might save some people in certain kinds of traffic accidents, there is ample evidence that in other kinds, people have been more seriously injured and even killed only because they used seat belts. Some people have been saved from death in certain kinds of accidents only because a seat belt was not used. In those cases, the malicious nature of seat-belt laws is further revealed: such persons are subject to fines for not dying in the accident while using a so-called safety device arbitrarily chosen by politicians.

No specific evidence is given, by the way. And the above also resonates with some anti-mask folks who claim, sans basis or evidence, that masks represent unspecified health risks.

Back to the FEE seat belt rant:

The state has no authority to subject people to death and injury in certain kinds of traffic accidents just because it hopes others will be saved in other kinds of accidents merely by chance. The state has no authority to take chances with a person’s body, the ultimate private property.

Echoes of current objections to masks can be heard in the above.

Meanwhile, back to the NHTSA study:

NHTSA’s most recent estimates are that lap/shoulder belts reduce the risk
of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50 percent (NHTSA, 2007b). Seat belts are even more effective for light-truck occupants, reducing the fatality risk by 60 percent and the moderate-to-serious injury risk by 65 percent. In 2006, seat belts saved an estimated 15,383 lives of vehicle occupants age 5 and older (NHTSA, 2007b). Shinar (2007) summarizes 9 original studies on belt effectiveness.

At any rate, one could replicate complaints about “freedom” in regards to motorcycle and bicycle helmet alongside empirical proof that such laws reduce injuries and save lives.

Of course, mask-wearing is less about keeping the mask wearer safe as it is a broader goal of reducing transmission of the virus that causes Covid-19. It is perhaps, therefore, more analogous to campaigns that started in the 1970s to stop people from smoking in public and to the basic elimination of smoking sections in planes, restaurants, and other public settings on the predicate that not only is smoking bad for the smoker, but it is also bad for the non-smokers who have to breathe smoke-tainted air. Those of us of a certain age will immediately know the jingle that goes along with the phrase “you mind very much if they smoke.”

All these examples are public health policies that required some level of infringement of personal liberty in public. Wear a seat belt on public roads, ditto helmets when riding on public streets, don’t smoke in public places (in all cases, do what you want on private property). And in all cases, it took substantial leadership and consensus to achieve. And in all cases the infringement on “personal liberty” redounded both the benefit of the person being infringed as well as to the general public by cutting down on the various social costs created by those behaviors.

But, of course, that is what public health measures are all about (as is governing in general): balancing personal choice and public benefits.

Side note: being an adult should mean understanding that life isn’t all about you.

And that brings us to masks and this current moment. Based on the above trip down memory lane, it should not be a surprise that some significant portion of Americans would object to being told to wear masks regardless of who was telling them.

All of the items above were based on the scientifically demonstrated public health benefits of each policy. They were also backed by massive public service campaigns and had the support of substantial numbers of political leaders. Of course, on the flip side, there was also plenty of political opposition and some of these changes took decades to fully achieve (e.g, the American Heart Association was singing about minding people smoking in the early 70s, but deep changes to smoking in workplaces and other public locales did not fully come into play until the 90s, if not later in some isolated cases).

This context of resistance to being told what to do means that for mask-wearing, social distancing, and other Covid-19 mitigation behaviors to be successful we need significant, responsible, and focused leadership, especially at the federal level. This is especially true in an era of intense partisan polarization.

Indeed, the question really isn’t “why are masks political” but rather why are they partisan?

Note the following from Pew Research:

The answer to “why are masks partisan?” has multiple facets. To be fair, the GOP is more likely to have libertarian-leaning folks, or simply those who don’t trust government/don’t like to be told what to do. Likewise, Democrats see themselves, in the main, as being pro-science, and therefore more likely to comply with what they perceive as science-based arguments (setting aside whether that is true or not, it certainly is the self-perception of Democrats, and it clearly influences behavior). Also, the fact that Covid-19 outbreaks were more prevalent in urban, and therefore more Democratic, locations also could have some explanatory effects (and probably other variables I have not considered).

But, of course, in the context of all of that is the simple fact that the leader of the GOP, Donald Trump, has not taken this pandemic seriously.

A simple illustration just from yesterday makes the point: Trump held an event at Mount Rushmore that did not require masks nor social distancing. Further, he made only a passing reference to “the virus” without any reference to the fact that the country has been registering record daily cases.*

The message that Trump sent to the nation yesterday was clear: enjoy the Fourth of July as per normal. Gather in large crowds without protection or mitigation procedures. Indeed, let’s all collectively ignore the increase in cases. Move along, nothing to see here.

His events in Tulsa, OK and Arizona sent the same message.

That is an utter failure of leadership.

It is an abdication of responsibility.

I am a college dean at a modest-sized regional university. I know that I have to model the behavior that I think is appropriate on campus and that I have to actively support good public health procedures. It helps support the actions of those who are already on board with such rules and encourages the skeptical to participate. If come the Fall students see me in the hallways sans mask, what signal am I sending?

If I, given my relatively minor leadership role, have a responsibility to model certain behaviors, how much more significant is it for the President of the United States to be cognizant of his public actions? Everything he does sends a signal, whether he likes it or not (or cares or not).

I noted this back in March when I observed that Trump was clearly not going to model social distancing at his daily briefings.

Indeed, Trump has never taken the pandemic seriously.** He has decidedly not promoted mask-wearing or mitigation save in passing. Indeed, not only has he barely worn a mask, he has avoided being photographed wearing on. He does not practice social distancing. He does not signal any seriousness about the pandemic at all.

So when we ponder why mask-wearing has become so partisan the answer is that the ground was already fertile for such a response by many Americans, but that the utter failure in leadership exhibited by the president has made it several orders of magnitude more so. Trump sent signals to Republicans governors as to how to behave, and they followed suit often creating conflicts with mayors and county-level leaders trying to mitigate the spread of the virus.

To that point, and as per the Pew chart above, the partisan effects have been clear from the beginning. James Joyner wrote about it early on in March, Coronavirus Has Been Politicized to Dangerous Effect, and I noted how it affected state-level responses in early April: Partisan Effects on Response to Covid-19.

As a time when we need a unifying leader we got nonsense and confusion. Instead of a national campaign to attack the pandemic, we were given hundreds of different voices. And hence, as I noted recently, we got the downside of American exceptionalism:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-apps/imrs.php?src=https://arc-anglerfish-washpost-prod-washpost.s3.amazonaws.com/public/KEA63WN4DFFOHAQLKJMMO3W3UE.jpg&w=916
Source: WaPo

That graph represents, among other things, an utter failure of leadership. It is not a coincidence that the US and Brazil lead the world in total cases, as both countries have leaders who have not taken the pandemic seriously.*** In terms of cases per million population, the US is 13th and Brazil 16th as of this writing (all from Worldometer). If you look at at least moderate-sized countries with a population of at least five million, the US is only behind Chile and Peru and Brazil is right after the US.

Leadership matters and the entire approach to the pandemic by the Trump administration has been an objective failure. And part of that failure has been heavily contributing to the politicization of the disease in general, and to mask-wearing specifically.

This means that we are in this for the long-run, which is not comforting.


*Based on transcripts at the White House web site, C-SPAN and Rev.com, I cannot find any references to “coronavirus,” “Covid-19,” “pandemic” or even things like “invisible enemy,” “Wuhan virus,” or “Kung Flu.” Instead, the best I could find was this lone reference at the 2:52 mark: “Let us also send you our deepest thanks to our wonderful veterans, law enforcement, first responders, and the doctors, nurses, and scientists working tirelessly to kill the virus.”

**Here are a dozen posts on that topic:

***In regards to Brazil, I recommend The Daily from July 2: “What Went Wrong in Brazil.”

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FILED UNDER: COVID-19, Donald Trump, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Hal_10000 says:

    I agree with this, but I would one other point: public health officials have shot themselves in the foot twice on this.

    The first time was back in February/March when they told us that masks weren’t going to help. They were of course doing that because of the shortage of N-95 masks (something else Trump bears responsibility for). But the inconsistency of the message is a huge problem. It’s not like, “Oh, we know more about the virus now”. They KNEW masks helped and they lied about it because they felt it was in service of a greater good. And this is going to be a huge problem in the future because, if we get a vaccine, we’re going to have to do the same calculus — prioritize healthcare workers ahead of everyone else.

    The second was a few weeks ago when a bunch of them downplayed the risks of the protests. I said at the time that they were flambeeing their credibility by pretending that the virus cared about the justice of the cause. And now we’re seeing a surge of the virus in young people which is partially due to early openings but partially due to the protests as well (unless you think Republicans are in control of California).

    To be clear: I agree 100% on Trump. If he had worn a mask early that would have reduced the problem dramatically. But he is temperamentally incapable of that. From day one, he has tried hard to find a partisan angle on an issue where everyone agrees on what needs to be done. He can’t not find a way to politicize it; it’s what he does.

    But the inconsistency of public health officials has played right into his hands on that.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Nice summary. Culture and group affinity are likely the pre-conditions and then leadership gives permission to defy the request for masks. Motorcyclist will note that the riders of some brands seldom wear helmets, unless compelled to, while other brands helmet use is nearly universal regardless of the law.

    Weird tribal allegiances.

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  3. DrDaveT says:

    But, of course, that is what public health measures are all about (as is governing in general): balancing personal choice and public benefits.

    To a first approximation, the definition of “libertarian” is “someone who has not yet grasped this fact.” People who accept the fact and argue in good faith about what the appropriate balance is are not libertarians; their rightmost fringe are classical liberals.

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  4. Argon says:

    The Wonkette had an interesting article the other week titled, What The Hell Do These Anti-Mask People Think Our Endgame Is Here?

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  5. CSK says:

    From my reading of pro-Trump sites (I do it so you don’t have to!), I gather that the anti-maskers aren’t just motivated by a desire to defend their liberties. A lot of them believe, to varying degrees, that the pandemic is a scam. Or, as Trump would say, a hoax. The purpose of the hoax is either to bring about the downfall of Donald Trump or to initiate the rise of global socialism.

    Yes, most of these people do believe that there is a virus and that it does cause an illness. But…they also believe that it’s no more serious than yearly flu, and that the number of people who’ve died of Covid-19 is vastly (and deliberately) over-inflated, again to make Donald Trump look bad, since all previous attempts to dethrone him didn’t work.

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of Trump being indifferent to COVID. He’s decided (as much as he decides anything) that he’s not going to do anything about COVID, and he’s running on not doing anything. The American public is, indeed, awfully prone to ‘You’re not the boss of me.’ but I don’t recall seatbelts or helmets or smoking becoming particularly partisan. Perhaps because Republicans at the time didn’t feel like being the party of brain injuries or lung cancer. But now they seem to be OK with being the party of COVID.

    The Republican Party has evolved to being unable to win election except on division and culture war. They need to seize on any issue on which they can drive a wedge between people. And masks, along with shutdowns and social distancing, presented a cleavage they could exploit. Of course it helped that COVID was disproportionally affecting the working poor and POC. There would have been some level of resistance to wearing masks in any case, but Trump has actively aggravated the situation. And his Mt Rushmore speech seems to be a declaration of culture war.

    The tragedy is that it seems to be developing that masks and distancing, along with avoiding obvious problems, like bars and political rallies, might be sufficient to flatten the curve, but Trump, along with missteps by Fauci and others as noted by @Hal_10000:, has created a situation in which it’s no longer possible to implement even such unobtrusive measures.

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  7. Kurtz says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I certainly agree with that point, but I am quite sure that plenty of American Libertarians would argue that their worldview is Classical Liberalism. No number of quotes from Rothbard will dissuade them from that fact.

  8. DrDaveT says:

    @Kurtz:

    I am quite sure that plenty of American Libertarians would argue that their worldview is Classical Liberalism.

    Sure. And plenty of Trump supporters would argue that their worldview is Christianity, with equal irony.

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  9. gVOR08 says:

    The “thrown free of the car” thing was common. While I doubt it was ever statistically valid, cars used to be full of hard, sharp edges, including non-safety glass. And the steering shaft used to be a steel rod running from just behind the front bumper to a foot in front of the driver’s chest. Flying free into a dirt embankment might have been no worse than flying into the dash of the car.

    Ralph Nader’s vanity campaign helped give us W and Iraq. But his book Unsafe at Any Speed did play a big role in making cars much safer by pushing seat belts and safety dashes and collapsible steering columns.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    It’s not politics, it’s religion.

    Refusing to wear a mask is an act of faith. It’s not about anyone’s rights, it’s an assertion of belief, like wearing a cross or a star of David. It’s magical thinking. Wearing a mask shows a lack of faith, and only true faith will protect you. Refusing to drink the Kool-Aid would just prove you never did love Jim Jones enough. Refusing to scourge your back with whips meant you never adored the Christ enough to be a monk. If you won’t give the Bhagwan all your money, you’re not a true disciple. You think it might be better just to let the FBI come in and look around the compound as opposed to burning to death? You must not trust David Koresh.

    It’s funny because in politics politicians want their voters to live. So that they can cast votes. And as a rule voters don’t flock to guys trying to get them killed.

    In cults cult leaders demand self-harm as a proof of submission. And cultists thrive on the self-abnegation, the surrender of their will, the belligerent denial of reality.

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  11. Northerner says:

    Trump seems to have made it worse in the United States, but it seems to go beyond that. In Canada the leaders of all the parties are advising masks (and the conservative premier of the largest province, Ontario, wants to make them mandatory), but there are still a lot of people who are against masks for a variety of reasons (everything from mistaken theories about herd immunity to not trusting authorities of any political stripe — though I think some of that is just looking for a rationalization to not do something they find inconvenient).

    Two things hurt the arguments for masks here (and I’ve been wearing them since the beginning): our head doctor Tam and the WHO said that wearing them was either unhelpful or even dangerous (probably hoping to save masks for medical services, so why not just say that instead of downplaying masks usefulness, especially since people wondered how could masks be useful for doctors but not other people). Then suddenly saying they’re useful left people all across the political spectrum thinking there wasn’t much evidence either way so do what you want.

    Secondly, saying going without masks wasn’t a problem for police violence protesters (police violence is also a big problem in Canada, though more with indigenous peoples who are the biggest group by population in our prisons) created more skepticism — how could the virus distinguish between being passed in a necessary protest vs say shopping? People all across the political spectrum rolled their eyes at that one.

    Basically, at least up here, if Tam and the WHO had said from the start to wear masks I suspect most people would have adopted it. Once people’s opinions were formed (either pro or anti-mask) they turned out to be hard to change, and both Tam and the WHO have lost a lot of credibility.

    Covid-19 and different responses to it is played out differently in every country, and in many masks were downplayed for reasons I don’t understand.

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  12. Hal_10000 says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I think there’s also hypocrisy. No one who comes in contact with Trump is not tested. Everyone around him wears masks when the cameras are off. Cases are contact-traced. He gets the protection that is denied to the rest of us.

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  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Hal_10000:
    Of course cult leaders are hypocrites, it’s key to the whole cult thing. Sex for me, not for thee. I get a Rolls Royce, you hitchhike. You don’t get money because money is evil, so I’m taking it all. Cult leaders are cons and cons are predators, with suckers/believers as their prey.

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  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The message that Trump sent to the nation yesterday was clear

    I just want to say, it’s not trump. Or at the very least it is not ONLY trump.

    As Betty Cracker said, back in 2017,

    Seven years ago today, legendary blogger, commenter and pie-filter baker Cleek came down from the mountaintop toting a stone tablet inscribed with one short sentence and gave Cleek’s Law to the world:

    Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily.

    trump magnifies this effect, but if Obama or Hillary had said from the Oval Office, “Wear a mask, save lives.” conservatives would have reacted with no less vehemence, quite possibly more.

    When trump is gone, Republicans and their alternative facts will still be here with their wholesale rejection of anything DEMs might propose.

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  15. Lynn says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Wearing a mask shows a lack of faith, and only true faith will protect you

    But carrying a gun for protection is different . . . somehow

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  16. Kathy says:

    On the matter of masks, it isn’t just politics, at least not everywhere.

    At the office, of 20 or so people in my department, about 10 of us wear masks all day or nearly all day long, 2 or 3 wear them on and off throughout the day, and the rest just don’t bother. and this is at a workplace that has made wearing masks mandatory.

    Partly it’s the boos. he comes to office wearing one, and takes it off as soon as he reaches his private office. The managers do exactly the same, except one who “compromised” by wearing a mask on his neck nearly all day long.

    Partly it’s stupidity. One manager, whom I’ve mentioned before, thinks they’re necessary only when outside and not indoors, besides, he’s explained, we all tested negative in May, so we’re all fine.

    3
  17. drj says:

    @Hal_10000:

    It’s not like, “Oh, we know more about the virus now”. They KNEW masks helped and they lied about it because they felt it was in service of a greater good.

    This is a complete fabrication.

    The scientific consensus was that a) improperly worn masks would do little against the spread of the virus; and b) that the false sense of security offered by wearing a mask would – in the aggregate – be more harmful than if the focus would be exclusively on social distancing.

    You have no evidence whatsoever that scientists or public health organizations deliberately lied about the benefits of masks.

    This is conspiracy theory-level nonsense and you should be ashamed for uncritically repeating it.

    In particular, it was data from Hong Kong that was only published in late March/early April that led to a widespread reconsideration of the effectiviness of wearing masks.

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  18. An Interested Party says:

    But this is what freedom in America means…one is free to be as stupid as possible…”you’re not the boss of me” indeed…as for the protests and Covid-19, research has shown that they did not cause a spike in cases

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  19. Scott F. says:

    To be fair, the GOP is more likely to have libertarian-leaning folks, or simply those who don’t trust government/don’t like to be told what to do. Likewise, Democrats see themselves, in the main, as being pro-science, and therefore more likely to comply with what they perceive as science-based arguments (setting aside whether that is true or not, it certainly is the self-perception of Democrats, and it clearly influences behavior).

    Science isn’t culture or political leadership, but its pertinence as a variable in the politicization of mask wearing shouldn’t be overlooked. What is it about libertarian mistrust of government that so consistently leads to mistrust of science? Individualism and science should not inherently stand in opposition, so why they often are has always been lost on me.

    I work for a biotech. At a recent virtual town hall, senior leaders shared their appreciation that they didn’t face the same challenges other corporate leaders had with convincing their employees to follow company mandated policies for COVID-19. The reason? A significant portion of the staff is made up of biologists, epidemiologists, contamination experts, et al. It was never a question of a go-along corporate culture or their leadership. The science said these were the appropriate measures to take based on the current evidence and that was all there was too it.

    Science demonstrated the efficacy of seat belts, helmets, and anti-smoking initiatives, so the debate fundamentally ended. We are still on the ascending slope of the learning curve with COVID-19, but all current evidence indicates mask-wearing helps slow the spread. Follow the science and put the damn mask on.

    7
  20. JohnMcC says:

    @Hal_10000: At Forbes there is a gentleman who has the wonderful name of Tommy Beer. His piece on the 1st July is titled ‘Research Determines Protests Did Not Cause Spike in Coronavirus Cases’. He cites a 60 pg paper by the Nat’l Bureau of Economic Research looking into protests numbers, dates and such in some 300 cities to make the claim that the protests did not cause such an increase. Period. Stop.

    “In fact” he goes on, “cities that had protests saw an increase in social distancing for the overall population relative to cities that did not”. The studies author claims this counter-intuitive finding (based on cell-phone data) is because “more people who did not protest decided to stay off the streets.”

    Did not find data specific to California. But I think you’re wrong about those protests.

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  21. grumpy realist says:

    I suspect that this is a problem that will solve itself. Those who don’t believe in the efficacy of masks will not wear them and will hang around other people who don’t wear them. Result? Higher risk of catching COVID-19.

    Continuous lack of listening to health cautions from the government will end up with the individual dead. I’m not going to feel sorry for natural consequences of stupidity. Too bad, so sad.

    3
  22. gVOR08 says:

    @Hal_10000: At your link I find the statement in question,

    The letter, which you can read at the link, declares its support for the anti-racism protests. It also draws a distinction between the anti-racism protests and the anti-lockdown protests, describing the former as being “rooted in white nationalism”. It argues that the anti-racism protests should be encouraged, despite the risk, while the anti-lockdown protests should not. It goes on to describe ways that to minimize the risk of a viral outbreak from the protests, such as wearing masks, not arresting people, not using tear gas, etc.

    “Despite the risk” and “ways to minimize the risk” do not strike me as equivalent to,

    pretending that the virus cared about the justice of the cause.

    Not to pick on you, but I keep seeing statements on the right that some medical person said virtuous protests were safe and I don’t think any expert actually said that.

    7
  23. steve says:

    ” Flying free into a dirt embankment might have been no worse than flying into the dash of the car.”

    The way they get to that nice, soft embankment is by going through the windshield. Come hang out sometime and we can show you the MRIs of the heads of the people who go through the windshield, well the few who live anyway long enough to get an MRI.

    Steve

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  24. JohnMcC says:

    You had to know it was working it’s way out of the septic tank: Kansas newspaper’s Facebook post equates Democratic governor’s mask mandate with Holocaust. Chicago Tribune.

    You also will have all expectations met when you discover that the publisher of the weekly Anderson County Review, Mr Dane Hicks, is the Chairman of his county’s Republican Party.

    From the description in the Trib, the governor wearing a mask with a Star of David is herding Kansans onto a train of cattle cars saying ‘put on your mask…and step onto the cattle car’.

    They are such charming people. And as someone once said to me: ‘I know it takes all kinds to make a world…but the percentages seem all wrong.’

    4
  25. An Interested Party says:

    You had to know it was working it’s way out of the septic tank: Kansas newspaper’s Facebook post equates Democratic governor’s mask mandate with Holocaust. Chicago Tribune.

    That’s the worst part of this whole thing–the self-pity and persecution some of these people feel…they wouldn’t know real oppression if it hit them in the face…talk about snowflakes…

    5
  26. Hal_10000 says:

    @drj:

    This is a complete fabrication.

    No it’s not. Masks have been used for *decades* to respond to epidemics. During the 1918 pandemic, there was a huge debate over masking laws and requirements in this country. Asian countries started using them immediately and it was obvious that it helped. Fauci has admitted they misled the public. That there were no scientific studies proving this is irrelevant. There are no double-blind studies proving that parachutes work if you jump out of an airplane either. Don’t start out with the premise that public health officials did nothing wrong and reason backward.

    @JohnMcC:

    Yes, I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. The paper he sites is a working paper. It used 34 cities as a control group for 281 cities. Their data only go through June 20 which is barely one disease cycle and ends before the current surge started. As I noted and as other public health officials noted, the wave of infections from protests would not show up for at least a few weeks if not over a month. If you get a few thousand infected at protests, that won’t show up immediately. But the people they take it home and spread it too will show up … eventually. The current surge is heaviest among young people, not old people. Which of those do you think were more likely to attend protests?

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  27. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @drj:

    The scientific consensus was that a) …..

    So I’m going to challenge you on that, would you kindly cite the source.

    Firstly, it doesn’t take a “scientific consensus” to assert that seat belts, if improperly deployed (like wrapped around one’s neck) might be more harmful versus helpful. Similarly, it is also fairly obvious that a facemask placed on the right ear will not have the desired effect. Frankly, it should not require a tutorial to apply a mask properly.
    Secondly, both physical distancing AND face masks are critical tools, and both should have been equally emphasized as soon as it was recognized that aerosol transmission was the principle method of transmission.

    I might fault @Hal_10000 for asserting that “they lied”, but I would agree that, early on, the message to downplay the role of respiratory filtering (wearing a mask) was done to preserve masking supplies for healthcare workers. The message should have been: “Everyone should be wearing a mask, particularly in public places. If you cannot find a mask at your local paint store, here’s how to make a mask that will have to suffice until the supply chain is more robust”.

    The medical community KNEW that masks were helpful, but downplayed that usefulness. IMO, that downplay was calculated.

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  28. Gustopher says:

    @Hal_10000:

    The current surge is heaviest among young people, not old people. Which of those do you think were more likely to attend protests?

    Which of those are more likely to go to parties and bars?

    I’m as surprised as anyone that the protests didn’t cause a strong surge in cases, but that’s what the preliminary evidence is showing. Protests are outdoors, and protestors mostly wore masks.

    Seattle had a huge protest, they took over six city blocks and a park for weeks. Washington State is seeing cases rise, but it’s Yakima County leading that, not King County where Seattle is.

    (Yakima has a lot of agriculture and migrant workers were there harvesting cherries. There are a lot of challenges keeping the migrant workers safe, and keeping them from infecting the rest of the community.)

    Seattle does have an outbreak in the frat houses though, which I was surprised to discover are a year-round thing. And, before you say “Aha!”, Frat Bros were not the ones out protesting.

    But, don’t take my word for it — pick a state that is surging, and then dig into the statistics by county, and then the local papers. I know Seattle, because I live here, and assume that other areas are likely similar. Texas, Arizona, Florida, or Oklahoma might be different.

    4
  29. Gustopher says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    I might fault @Hal_10000 for asserting that “they lied”, but I would agree that, early on, the message to downplay the role of respiratory filtering (wearing a mask) was done to preserve masking supplies for healthcare workers.

    Early on, when the “don’t wear a mask” guidance was given, we didn’t understand the virus as well as we do now (incubation period, asymptomatic transmission (went from not a thing, to a really big thing, then down to a medium thing), crazy high R0, etc…), and there wasn’t as much expectation of community transmission yet.

    That last one is key. Wearing a mask does very little to protect the wearer, so without a fair bit of community transmission that’s a lot of masks being used for minimal purpose.

    The guidance wasn’t a lie, it was just wrong.

    I wish they would lie and claim that you wearing a mask cuts the risk of you getting infected by some decent number. Apparently that’s what some people need to hear before they will be motivated to wear them.

    3
  30. drj says:

    @Hal_10000:

    No it’s not. Masks have been used for *decades* to respond to epidemics.

    Yes, it IS a total fabrication, one that is immediately obvious once you consider what is meant by “masks.”

    Initially, health scientists believed that only N95 masks in combination with protective eyewear would offer adequate protection against Covid-19. Obviously, you don’t want the general public wearing such masks (wrongly) when health care workers who are in direct contact with sick people have to go without.

    Public health organizations such as the WHO were completely open about this. They offered explicit guidance on who should get to have medical grade PPE during severe shortages.

    Right now, public health organizations recommend any mask, including self-fabricated cloth masks. Of course, there was never a shortage of such masks, it was just that people didn’t believe they would work. You can look up older guidance documents on the WHO website which state that “cloth masks are never recommended” (even for the general public).

    Fauci has admitted they misled the public.

    Thus, it goes without saying that your link doesn’t support this assertion.

    Of course, this isn’t the only fabrication you are guilty of.

    The second was a few weeks ago when a bunch of them downplayed the risks of the protests.

    Let’s note here that the “them” refers to “public health officials.”

    So, did public health officials downplay the risks of the protests?

    Your evidence for this assertion is an open letter signed by 1,200 health care professionals.

    * Health care professionals are not public health officials (duh).
    * There are close to 17 million health care workers in the US, so 1,200 isn’t a lot.
    * The letter states “Prepare for an increased number of infections in the days following a protest.”

    Things like this make it hard to believe you are arguing in good faith.

    6
  31. Richard Burton says:

    “All of the items above were based on the scientifically demonstrated public health benefits of each policy.” Referring to seat belts, motorcycle and cycle helmets.

    Whilst I completely agree that masks reduce the risk of passing on the virus, you’ve chosen three examples to prove your case which don’t prove your case. There was no scientifically demonstrated public health benefits in any of the three. Laws were instituted because of high profile publicity campaigns and emotional blackmail, and in at least one case, the suppression of research.

    In the most studied one of the three, cycle helmets, the most reliable evidence, from more than 25 years of helmet laws in Australia and New Zealand, show clearly that they haven’t reduced the risks of cycling. Similarly, motorcycle helmets have not had the effects that were predicted when laws were enacted, and some states have withdrawn the law. Seat belts are an interesting case, as they do save the lives of drivers and passengers, but because of the risk compensation effect, they kill more people outside the car, about the same number as they save.

  32. Kurtz says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Sure. And plenty of Trump supporters would argue that their worldview is Christianity, with equal irony.

    Well, of course. This country is stupid and crazy. Having periods when one of those things is true is normal. I’m concerned that we will be stuck in a period featuring both of those things for a long time.

    1
  33. @Richard Burton: I am not going to present myself as an expert on these matters, but I did cite one set of stats on seat belts in the post, and have read others over the years noting their efficacy (the notion that more people die outside the car is new to me, but feel free to post that info). That sounds to me, at least initially, like the same kind of anecdote as the “trapped in the car” one I noted above, to be honest.

    I do know that motor vehicle deaths are down over time, especially from the early 80s to now (of course, other technologies are relevant as well). I find the notion that there is some kind of offset to be hard to believe but am open to the data.

    I am no expert on motorcycle helmets, but everything I have ever seen on that subject shows that helmets reduce the risk of fatalities in motorcycle accidents.

    Please share the bicycle study. This is the one I will admit to having seen the least amount of information over time. On that one, I can only go anecdotal and note that had I been wearing a helmet when I lost my balance on my bike in the summer between 3rd and 4th grade I would have been a lot better off with a helmet on when I impacted the curb.

    2
  34. Richard Burton says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    There are many and various cycle helmet studies, but the most reliable epidemiological studies show at best no benefit, and at worse, increased risk. Most of the studies showing huge benefits are small scale, short term and are methodologically much less reliable than the long term, large scale studies and are done by people convinced that they work. Most comprehensive collection of helmet research is here cyclehelmets.org

    Before cycle helmet laws were introduced in Australia and New Zealand, it was claimed that they would reduce deaths by 85%, but that came from a single study which no other study has been able to replicate, but it’s still the most quoted figure about cycle helmets. In practice, there has been no improvement in the death rate of cyclists, and because of the unintended consequences, the law has been a public health disaster. Regular cyclists live on average two years longer, and suffer less from all forms of morbidity, including cancer, diabetes and mental problems. The only proven effect of the laws was to reduce the number of cyclists, so the people who gave up got sicker quicker and died earlier.

    The increased risk to people outside the vehicle comes from risk compensation, the phenomenon of feeling safer, so you take more risks. There are many studies validating it, and “Risk” by John Adams is an excellent book. The UK government commissioned a report about seat belts to inform the debate about them, the Isles Report, but it was never published because it showed that overall, seat belts didn’t save lives, they just transferred the risk to people outside the car. One of the most famous demonstrations of risk compensation was two sets of drivers, the first set having standard vehicles, the second having the same cars, but with every conceivable safety device; it was assumed that the second group would have considerably fewer injury collisions, but the results were identical, because the second group of drivers used the safety features to go faster and take more risks.

    Likewise motorcycle helmets, the claims before the laws were brought in have not been realised, and some states have withdrawn the law, and there has been no resulting carnage, in fact the death rates don’t seem to have changed. Perhaps not surprising when you consider that they are only effective up to about 16mph, and they increase the risk of the most dangerous head injury, rotational. In the UK when they introduced the motorcycle helmet law, there was an immediate drop in deaths, so the law was declared a success, but one researcher looked deeper, and discovered that most of the improvement was between the hours of 2200 to 0200, so unless the helmets became magically effective during those hours, the change was due to something else. What else changed at the same time? The breathalyser was introduced, massively reducing drunk driving, and a much more likely candidate for the improvement.

    The whole field of road safety is fascinating, with laws being brought in based on emotion and uproven benefits, but seldom with proper analysis of the effects.

    You probably wouldn’t have been better off with a helmet when you fell off https://www.cyclehelmets.org/1209.html

    Sorry, bit of a diatribe, and as you might have guessed, a subject close to my heart.

    1
  35. DrDaveT says:

    @Richard Burton:

    Regular cyclists live on average two years longer, and suffer less from all forms of morbidity, including cancer, diabetes and mental problems. The only proven effect of the laws was to reduce the number of cyclists, so the people who gave up got sicker quicker and died earlier.

    I’m going to save this paragraph as an example to my research assistants of reverse causation.

    Hint: people who [insert activity that you can’t do from a chair] live longer, and suffer less from all forms of morbidity, than people who don’t, no matter how you fill in the blank. That’s because people who [insert same activity] are generally healthier than the overall population — that’s part of why they are able to [ditto]. Leaping from there to “[activity] makes you live longer, so anything that makes people stop [activitying] shortens lives” is, literally, a classic textbook error.

    3
  36. Richard Burton says:

    @DrDaveT: I don’t quite understand your point. You do not challenge the fact that regular cyclists as a group live longer and are healthier, fitter and slimmer than average, but then deny that deterring people from doing so is likely to reduce their lifespan and health, but your post isn’t particulary clear, so maybe I’ve got that wrong. Is that what you’re saying?

    If it is what you’re saying, there are studies showing that the societal health effects of cycle helmet laws are large and negative.

    I do note that you seem to have picked on the one, relatively minor, thing that you feel is disputable, but do not seem to questioning the vast majority of anything I’ve said.

  37. Richard Burton says:

    @DrDaveT: “I’m going to save this paragraph as an example to my research assistants of reverse causation.”

    I’ve just checked my understanding of reverse causation, and in no way does my assertion that preventing people cycling leads to reduced lifespan and increased ill health fit that definition, so perhaps you could enlighten me with yours?

  38. @Richard Burton:

    You probably wouldn’t have been better off with a helmet when you fell off

    I heavily suspect that had a helmet prevented my direct contact with the curb, it would have been to my advantage.

    Sorry, bit of a diatribe, and as you might have guessed, a subject close to my heart.

    I definitely get that impression, yes. 😉

    2
  39. Hal_10000 says:

    I was thinking about this some more and I think the politicization of masks was inevitable given the current state of the GOP.

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Today’s conservatism is the opposite of what liberals want today, updated daily.

    This is the rump of the GOP of which Trump is the rumpiest. They have no agenda. No ideas beyond “cut taxes”. All they have is opposition. Opposition to the media, to Democrats, to “elites”, to liberals, to whatever. If “the liberals” — however that’s defined — support something, they oppose it.

    When COVID erupted, everyone agreed on what needed to be done: shut off large events, social distance, work from home and (eventually) masks. The vast majority of Republicans agree with these steps too. But Trump and the small but loud GOP base just couldn’t stomach agreeing with Democrats. You could see him trying and then he’d grab his phone and tweet out something about Democrats destroying the country. He just can’t imagine a world where he agrees with the Democrats.

    Granted, the mask thing in particular was fed by the inconsistent messaging, which gave the denialists their opening. But the main reasons is they just *have* to oppose whatever Democrats are doing. You compared masks to smoking. If we had just found out today that smoking caused lung cancer, the GOP rump would be out chain-smoking just to show ’em.

    3
  40. Richard Burton says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: “I heavily suspect that had a helmet prevented my direct contact with the curb, it would have been to my advantage.”

    As the link I provided shows, there are thousands of these “helmet saved my life” stories, but the death rate of cyclists does not fall as helmet wearing rates increase, so they cannot be true. There are many more of these stories than the annual death rate of cyclists, so unless wearing a helmet makes it much more likely that you’ll be involved in a life-threatening incident, they can’t be true. If they do make it more likely, what is the point of wearing one?

    It’s pretty clear that you didn’t die from the collision, and you probably didn’t suffer any cognitive brain damage either, so how exactly, would the helmet have helped?

    Perhaps you could let me know your views on the rest of the information in my previous posts?

  41. @Richard Burton:

    It’s pretty clear that you didn’t die from the collision, and you probably didn’t suffer any cognitive brain damage either, so how exactly, would the helmet have helped?

    My head directly impacted the concrete curb resulting in two black eyes and concussion. It is not unreasonable to assume that the styrofoam in a bike helmet would have lessened to kinetic impact on my skull. Not a guarantee depending on the angle of impact, but the notion that it would not have helped strikes me as odd.

    That’s my opinion about an incident that happened around 40 years ago, vivid though it is in my mind. Further litigation of it is probably pointless.

    I appreciate that you have a point of view on all of this and that you have provided further collaboration for your position. I am not convinced by it at this time, but will promise to keep an open mind. Since my point wasn’t really about the efficacy of helmets, and because I am not expert on said topic, I am content to let it be for the moment.

    1
  42. DrDaveT says:

    @Richard Burton:

    I don’t quite understand your point.

    On this, we agree.

    You do not challenge the fact that regular cyclists as a group live longer and are healthier, fitter and slimmer than average, but then deny that deterring people from doing so is likely to reduce their lifespan and health

    Yes, because (unlike you) I understand the difference between correlation and causation.

    What you are failing to account for is that being generally healthy causes cycling. That is to say, people who are not generally healthy are far less likely to ride motorcycles than are people who are generally healthy. As a result, when you compare an average outcome for cyclists against the overall population mean for that outcome, you of course find that cyclists do better. But you have misinterpreted the direction of the causal arrow — you have concluded that cycling causes health, when in fact the opposite is true.

    There are statistical methods for correcting for this bias, but they are complicated. (The entire field of econometrics was invented to deal with this kind of problem.) All of them work by approximately comparing people who do X against people who are otherwise identical but do not do X. This can be done using instrumental variables (things that are highly correlated with doing X but cannot be causally influenced by the outcome of interest), or by other means. But you cannot look at data that shows that people who eat a lot of olive oil have less heart disease and conclude that eating lots of olive oil prevents heart disease. Eating olive oil is itself an outcome, caused by many factors (e.g. being of Italian or Greek descent), some of which might well relate to heart disease propensity.

    Last example: alcoholics who stop drinking are more likely to die of cirrhosis of the liver than are alcoholics as a group. On your analysis, this means that stopping drinking is bad for alcoholics. In reality, alcoholics who stop drinking often do so because they’ve been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. The population of “alcoholics who stop drinking” is biased toward those with bad liver outcomes, which skews the statistics. In reality, every alcoholic’s liver is better off if they stop than if they don’t — but you have to get beyond raw subpopulation average outcomes to see that.

    3
  43. Richard Burton says:

    @DrDaveT: Sarcasm doesn’t really work very well on the web does it.

  44. de stijl says:

    @Argon:

    J’adore Wonkette.

  45. de stijl says:

    @gVOR08:

    Seatbelts and helmet laws were super partisan.

    Not to mention catalytic converters and unleaded gas.

    A sort of white working class, white LMC guy got very perturbed back then. My half brother did.

    What if you have an accident and wind up underwater?

    How often does that happen vs. cars hitting others cars or trees or light poles I asked. Can you not unbuckle in about two seconds I asked.

    Dingus hit me full on in the face. I was being deliberately provocative. So was he. He did not enjoy getting shit only giving shit. Fuck him.

    1
  46. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    You are being far too kind.

    Helmets save lives. Helmets save brains.

    2
  47. de stijl says:

    Helmet law guys are very like anti-vaxxers.

    2
  48. @de stijl: Since the post really isn’t about the efficacy of helmets, I figure there is no point in a deep dive on the subject.

    1
  49. Richard Burton says:

    @de stijl: “You are being far too kind.

    Helmets save lives. Helmets save brains.”

    Unless you look at the evidence. But helmet zealots studiously avoid looking at anything that might challenge their beliefs, so refuse to examine it. cyclehelmets.org

  50. de stijl says:

    @Richard Burton:

    No, I won’t look.

    Explain how not wearing a helmet is better and safer in your own terms.

  51. DS says:

    My personal experience: it is just harder to breathe with a mask on especially in a warm or hot climate. If government has authority to restrict or regulate a healthy person’s inalienable right to breathe freely, what can’t it restrict or regulate?