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Masks are putting people at each other’s throats, especially in Palm Beach County

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In the increasingly nasty debate about coronavirus masks, Palm Beach County became the nation’s focus for the all the wrong reasons.

A woman stood before county commissioners a couple weeks back and demanded that they vote against requiring people to wear face coverings in public to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. She was one of about 45 angry people making the plea that day.

Then she spoke the words that would catch social media by storm: “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear … things gotta breathe.”

The woman’s frank admission made headlines everywhere from CNN to The Daily Beast, but it did not sway commissioners, who unanimously made their county the last in South Florida to pass a mask order.

At the same time, the face-off thrust Palm Beach County back into the nation’s consciousness, a microcosm of America’s debate over whether masks prevent disease or infringe on freedom.

Little about the pandemic has generated as much consternation as masks, even given almost universal medical evidence that masks help stop the virus from spreading. The popularity of social media and the country’s giant political divide have created an environment where mask agitation thrives.

Opponents say any benefit from masks — which they dispute in any case — is not worth the cost of their individual rights. No one should be told what they must wear, particularly by the government, they say.

Mask supporters are just as adamant about their view: We all need to don face coverings now or the pandemic will kill people needlessly.

The conflict seems particularly pitched in Palm Beach County, where four people sued county commissioners this week over the mask order. They contend that masks are “harmful medical devices” with “well-known risks and potential for serious injury and death.”

Louis Leo IV, an attorney from Pompano Beach, represents those residents and spoke at the county commission meeting June 23.

“If we’re going to educate people, let’s learn about pseudoscience,” he said. “It’s coming largely from unethical organizations who profit from sickness and eliminating, not just civil rights, but human rights under the guise of disease prevention. You know what you’re doing is wrong.”

Those comments aside, most experts say masks are an essential step to combat the coronavirus.

“There is no known medical condition that would prevent anyone over the age of 2 from wearing a mask,” said Dr. Terry Adirim, an emergency physician and dean of clinical affairs at Florida Atlantic University’s College of Medicine. “There is scientific evidence that wearing a mask reduces the risk of transmission.”

Just as questionable are the legal arguments against masks, many experts say.

“The state has an interest in public safety during a pandemic,” said Malik Leigh, an attorney in Pompano Beach and former law teacher. “Bill of Rights freedoms are often denied so long as there exists a legitimate reason.”

Leigh cited the minimum drinking age, fire codes and speed limits as examples where some freedom is curtailed in the interest of the health and safety of the broader public.

“I grew up in Asia. Asia has the largest population on the planet,” Leigh said. “Probably the majority not only wear masks, but have worn them for decades. None of them are dying.

“Here, these people are mad because they think they have a right to possibly infect others. They have a right to get sick and die, but not to knowingly or recklessly get others sick and/or kill them.”

Clear-cut legal and medical opinions are not likely to tame the debate, though. In many places, the conflict has turned physical.

A man in Dallas told The New York Times he got into a fistfight when another person at a convenience store tried to rip off his mask. An employee at a big box store in South Florida had to instruct her employees how to defuse tense situations, the Times reported.

Videos on social media show people trying to enter businesses with medical-looking cards professing that a mask would be dangerous for them, on authority of a fictional government entity called the “Freedom to Breathe Agency.”

Restaurant operators in South Florida have bemoaned that they frequently must confront unruly customers who oppose mask requirements, and some restaurants nationally have closed rather than function as enforcers.

Adirim, the medical dean at FAU, called the politicization of coronavirus a shame. Lack of leadership in state and federal government has exacerbated the situation, she said.

President Donald Trump had shunned masks until this week, when he said he liked masks because they made him look like the Lone Ranger.

Vice President Mike Pence has been photographed repeatedly without a mask, but on Thursday, in Florida, he encouraged young people — a growing segment of coronavirus patients — to wear them while celebrating the Fourth of July.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has repeatedly refused to issue a statewide mask order, even though cases are growing faster here than almost anywhere else. Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation has urged DeSantis repeatedly to take action, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz repeated the plea on Thursday.

“It starts at the top,” Adirim said. Without guidance, “people feel empowered to go against the best public health options.”

According to a recent Gallup poll, women are more likely to wear masks in public than men, 75% to 63%, and Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are more likely than their Republican and Republican-leaning counterparts, 83% to 54%.

During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, Adirim worked in senior medical and public health roles at the Department of Homeland Security. She recalls a unified message from the federal government, making communications with the public more effective than what she’s observing today.

“What I observed and experienced when I was working on that response was really effective public health communications,” she said. “It was very consistent. The senior leaders across the government held table-top exercises just to talk about the messages out to the public. … When Dr. Fauci is saying something and the vice president is saying something else, it creates mixed messages to the people.”

 

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