Sorry to burst your bubble: The majority of Americans will never wear face masks

Many — or maybe even most — Americans will never wear a face mask.

In a recent article from NPR, the author cited a recent study that found “if 95% of people wear cloth masks when they’re out and about interacting with other people, it reduces transmission by at least 30%.” More recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said that if at least 90 percent of Americans “wear masks, social distance and wash hands regularly,” the United States could get the pandemic under control in 12 weeks.

Yeah. Not going to happen.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a liberal, dedicated mask wearer myself who loves nothing more than judging the “unmasked” from the peaks of my moral high ground. I have been diligently working from home, washing my hands, wiping down my groceries and avoiding any non-socially distanced activities since the pandemic began. I also don’t hold any all-knowing, “J.D. Vance-style” insight (insert eye roll here) into “real America” or have a public health background that should allow me to make this statement.

I just live in a mid-sized, blue-leaning, southern city and recently visited my local pharmacy.

My CVS sits across from an old, worn-down Krystals and an abandoned paint supply store on a busy street north of downtown. Inside, I was waiting in line for the pharmacy when I saw the man at the counter wasn’t wearing a mask and didn’t seem bothered in the slightest.

As he walked up, the pharmacy tech tapped the plexiglass barrier in front of her. Pointing to the sign that informs patrons that masks are required.

“I’d rather be kicked out of the store than wear a mask,” he remarked.

“Well, why would you want that?” the tech asked in the most patronizing, bless-you-heart-kind-of-way only mastered by southern women.

“I mean, I don’t believe it’s a hoax or anything,” he said. “I just smoke, so I hate wearing them.”

After giving him a wide berth as he walks away, I calmly walk up to the counter and ask for my inhaler refill. Yeah, an inhaler. I was diagnosed with asthma (during the pandemic!) and am still able to wear a mask. Happily so.

At that moment, I realized that we will never get the majority of Americans to wear masks. You can forget about A+ range numbers. Because bending to authority — or common sense — is not the American way.

Trump can finally start saying that mask-wearing is “patriotic.” Countless doctors and scientists can release unique videos and studies about their effectiveness. Countries around the world can get nearly universal buy-in from their citizens. Even celebrities can try to make it “hip and cool” to wear one.

But it won’t work.

In The Atlantic article about the role of cognitive dissonance in the pandemic, Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris argue that people will always justify the wisdom of their choice, even when faced with nearly insurmountable evidence to the contrary.

For my CVS buddy, his mindset essentially went through this thought cycle: People say COVID-19 kills people. They also say it kills people who smoke or have lung problems with greater frequency. Stores are requiring masks to keep people safe. But masks are uncomfortable. And I don’t want to wear one. So screw it.

It doesn’t matter if scientists, doctors, politicians, celebrities, friends, and family members provide the best evidence, narrative or compelling reasons to wear a mask. People like the CVS man might even believe them! Or be fine with others wearing them! But he won’t.

Because that’s America. Many of us choose our freedom, even when it might literally kill us.

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Abby Hassler

Abby Hassler

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An anxious writer and observer who explores the issues of identity in this crazy, new world. Care to join me?