Sarah Curran was at a grocery store last week, browsing the soup aisle with a mask on, when a shopper without a face covering approached her and shook his head.
“You know COVID is a hoax,” the man said, according to Curran. “I don’t understand why people are still wearing masks.”
Curran, 28, a nurse with the cardiothoracic intensive care unit at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, Michigan, could think of plenty of reasons — including the dozens of coronavirus patients admitted to her hospital, about a fifth of whom have died.
“You really want to argue this with me?” she asked the man after telling him what she does for a living.
“Normally, I’m not the confrontational type, but I just couldn’t hold it back,” Curran told NBC News. “This little old lady down the aisle was clapping, and the guy just kind of walked away.”
Across the country, there is a deepening divide between Americans who are firmly adhering to guidelines issued by public health officials to avoid the spread of the coronavirus and those who believe the recommendations are overkill, contradictory or just plain annoying.
Masks, in particular, have become a flashpoint from coast to coast: In California, Orange County’s chief health officer recently resigned after she received death threats for her countywide mask order.
And during the wave of nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism following George Floyd‘s May 25 death, so many police officers in New York City were spotted violating the mandatory mask rule that they drew the ire of both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The Floyd demonstrations brought thousands of people in close proximity to one another and were backed by more than 1,200 public health experts, who signed an open letter of support but recommended that protesters practice social distancing and other safety measures when possible.
The movement, and public health professionals’ blessing of it, seems to have only expanded the rift between Americans, many of whom have grown irritated with the precautions more than three months into the pandemic.
On social media, dueling hashtags specifically tied to masks have emerged: #MaskItorCasket for those who are pro-masks, and #NoMaskDay for those who want to do without — and plan to do just that in cities nationwide this Saturday.
In interviews with 17 people in cities throughout the United States, some said their faith is eroding in those tasked with keeping them safe, while others said they felt it was more crucial than ever to abide by advice from officials to flatten the curve.
The rationale on both sides comes from a deeply emotional place. For those eager to restart their livelihoods, religious services or other aspects of life, conflicting messages about the coronavirus are making them question everything they have given up so far.
And for those dead set on avoiding a second wave of COVID-19, they worry about future losses they might have to endure.
Curran, for instance, is concerned about another influx of patients at her hospital, and is also afraid she could accidentally transmit the virus to her 5-year-old daughter, Remy, should she get exposed through work. To protect Remy, she has not hugged the little girl in nearly 100 days.
In some cases, the split falls along party lines — a poll published by the Pew Research Center in late May just before Floyd’s killing found that trust in medical scientists and public health experts had grown, but mainly among Democrats.
In Raleigh, North Carolina, Ryan Fournier, founder and co-chairman of Students for Trump, a nonprofit that aims to mobilize college students to re-elect the president, said that “COVID feels like old news now.”
“If you’re going to allow these massive protests and massive crowds without people getting fined and arrested under the current conditions in these states due to COVID, you should be opening up other places, like places of worship. Small businesses should be able to open their doors,” Fournier, 24, said. “Enough is enough.”
Health professionals say their open letter amid the Floyd protests was not sanctioning large gatherings as much as it was advocating an anti-racist public health response to the demonstrations against systemic injustice — a health crisis that long predates the pandemic.
The demonstrations against the killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people by police should not be broken up under “the guise of maintaining public health for COVID-19 restrictions,” the letter said. In contrast, most public health officials opposed the April protests against stay-at-home orders in Lansing, Michigan.
It is an important distinction, say those whose signatures are on the letter.
“When people ask why we were saying we allow these protests, the question they think they are asking is, ‘Why are these people allowed to be out on the street, and why am I not allowed to go to church?'” said Dr. Abby Hussein, an infectious disease fellow at the University of Washington who was one of the first people to sign the letter. “But the true question they’re asking is, ‘Why are these people allowed to fight for their lives, and I’m not allowed to go to church?'”
While the letter emphasized that safeguards should be in place during the protests — for example, it opposed the use of tear gas or other irritants by police that could induce coughing — it has been criticized as hypocritical.
“Our national life during this pandemic has slid toward a double standard,” Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said last week. “A month ago, small protest demonstrations were widely condemned as reckless and selfish. Now, massive rallies that fill entire cities are not just praised, but in fact, are called especially brave because of the exact same health risks that brought condemnation when the cause was different.”
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, Ashley StClair, a conservative political commentator, expressed a similar sentiment.
“You’re kind of giving people the idea that the spread of the coronavirus is inversely proportional to the nobility of your cause, and clearly that’s not how it works.”
“You’re kind of giving people the idea that the spread of the coronavirus is inversely proportional to the nobility of your cause, and clearly that’s not how it works,” she told NBC News.
Adding to StClair’s frustrations was a misstep last week by the World Health Organization, which issued a correction after one of its doctors said it was “very rare” for asymptomatic carriers to spread the virus — throwing into question the premise behind wearing masks.
“They are sending so many conflicting messages,” StClair said. “We don’t know what to believe.”
That isn’t the case for Rosie Fonseca, 43, a cook at a restaurant inside the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas, where casinos, bars and gyms reopened this month, with some restrictions. She said she worried businesses were opening too soon in Nevada, where COVID-19 cases are rising.
But she had no issue with the demonstrations.
“It’s one thing to put yourself at risk to go to a bar, but this cause is worth taking a risk for because we need this kind of change,” Fonseca said.
In some spots, mask use is down significantly
Pandemic guidance has evolved as scientists’ understanding of the never-before-seen coronavirus has grown, from whom to test to how contagious it is.
Federal recommendations on masks have changed, too, in the last two months. At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that face coverings were only necessary for those displaying symptoms of the coronavirus.
Then, as it became clear that at least 35 percent of COVID-19 infections can be asymptomatic, the CDC recommended everyone wear a face mask in addition to staying 6 feet apart from people outside of their household at all times.
But even President Donald Trump has repeatedly flouted that, including during a tour of a mask production factory in early May.
And as summer weather sets in, wearing masks can be stifling. But many don’t see that as an excuse.
In Austin, Texas, Nick Peebles, 34, said that at his job at a grocery store, which requires that everyone wear masks, customers are combative, which disappoints him — especially because they are only inside the air-conditioned store for a few minutes at a time.
“It’s such a simple measure to take to try and be safe.”
“It’s such a simple measure to take to try and be safe,” he said.
As Peebles spoke to NBC News last Friday from a spot off of Lady Bird Lake in Austin, joggers, walkers and cyclists passed by on a trail along the lake, most with no masks. Some had bandannas or other cloth coverings, but left them around their necks.
Coronavirus cases have been rising in Texas, which has been among the states leading the charge to reopen businesses.
Dr. Mark Escott of the Austin-Travis County health authority, told The Austin American-Statesman that the reopening of businesses is not the only reason for the uptick.
“We also have an increase in risk-taking behavior,” Escott said. “People are less cautious, they’re not wearing masks as much, they’re not social distancing as much, and they’re not paying as close attention to personal hygiene messages like washing your hands frequently and not touching your face.”
The same scenario is playing out elsewhere and is a phenomenon known as “caution fatigue,” where people become desensitized to warnings as a result of physical and mental exhaustion from observing safety guidance, according to Jackie Gollan, an associate professor of psychiatry and a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine who conducts research on how habits interfere with goals.
“We begin to outweigh the risks of the situation for the benefits, be it the connection or the goals, like attending a protest or seeing a neighbor,” Gollan said.
And the sight of other people wearing masks may give an individual a false sense of security.
“People do things that are risky like not wearing a mask or washing their hands assuming that others have taken safety precautions.”
“People do things that are risky like not wearing a mask or washing their hands assuming that others have taken safety precautions,” she said. “So, ‘I’m at less risk because you’re wearing the mask.'”
In Detroit, where at least 1,420 people have died of the coronavirus, nearly everyone at a shopping center east of downtown last Thursday was wearing a mask.
Dee Dee Alexander, 63, has had friends and members of her church die from the virus, and said she plans to keep wearing a mask until she knows it’s safe to go without one.
“I want to live as long as I can,” she said.
“I want to live as long as I can.”
In Los Angeles, where masks are required to enter virtually every business and are often seen in public, Caleb Auston, 33, said he was in no rush to return to pre-pandemic life — even with protections in place.
“I have no interest in going to restaurants. I’ve got no interest in going back to the gym,” he said. “I have no interest in being around people for a long time.”
In Oxford, Mississippi, David Swider, the owner of a small record store called The End of All Music, recently started welcoming customers to his store again. Customers must sign up in advance for one-hour appointments during which they get the store to themselves, and they must wear masks and gloves while inside.
“The only way to shop for records is by touching all of them and being very close to them, and it can be a pretty intimate thing,” Swider said.
“It would be devastating to learn that someone got sick because they came to the record store. The money’s not worth it.”
A decent number of customers have made appointments, helping keep the record store afloat. But Swider does not foresee fully opening up to the public anytime soon.
“It would be devastating to learn that someone got sick because they came to the record store,” he said. “The money’s not worth it.”
Is an increase in infections inevitable?
In many states, confirmed cases of the coronavirus have jumped over the past two weeks. Florida and Arizona recently reported new daily highs, and the CDC forecasts that there could be up to 140,000 deaths from COVID-19 across the U.S. by July.
But an out-of-control spike is not inevitable: A British study last week found that widespread mask use in public combined with some lockdown measures could be an “acceptable way of managing the pandemic and re-opening economic activity” while avoiding future waves of the coronavirus while scientists race to develop a vaccine. Two other studies, out of Germany and the United States, found the same thing.
For Curran, the nurse in Michigan, the fear of more cases weighs heavily on her. For the time being, she has sent her daughter, Remy, to live with Remy’s grandmother, even though there have not been new coronavirus patients in her hospital lately. When she is not working, Curran goes to visit her, sitting on a lawn chair at least 6 feet away.
“Whenever I see people out in public who aren’t wearing masks, I just want to tell them this is part of the reason I can’t hug my daughter,” she said, adding that she doesn’t know when she will feel comfortable bringing Remy home. “They think they’re not going to get sick. But it’s not just about you: You have to think about everybody as a whole.”
Erin Einhorn contributed reporting from Detroit; Suzanne Gamboa from Austin, Texas; Anita Hassan from Las Vegas; Tyler Kingkade from Los Angeles; and Savannah Smith from Oxford, Mississippi.