The politics of face masks

By , Daily Memphian Published: June 01, 2020 4:00 AM CT

As the economy reopens in a pandemic that has turned a corner into a new wave of nationwide protest and violence, wearing a facial covering is seen by some as more of a political choice than a personal health choice.

County officials want cloth face coverings to be required, not requested

The dilemma is another sign of a political divide that has surfaced as the Memphis City Council considers an ordinance to require facial coverings as citizens here and elsewhere protest the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day as well as observe the national divide that deepened with the 2016 presidential election.

That’s a lot of ground for a six-inch piece of fabric to cover.

Usually larger flags and banners serve that purpose.

This week, the council could take a final vote on requiring that masks be worn in public places.

It’s something the Shelby County Health Department considered in its latest directive, but stopped short of. The directive recommends, but does not require, Shelby Countians to wear a mask as part of social distancing practices.

The Shelby County Commission ultimately passed a resolution urging businesses to have their employees wear face masks and supply masks as well. The City Council approved a similar nonbinding resolution.

The council is scheduled to vote Tuesday, June 2, on the third and final reading of an ordinance by Dr. Jeff Warren that would require facial masks to be worn in all “public places” within the city.

But there will be some amendments discussed in committee Tuesday morning before the final vote that afternoon.

“We are going to take out the initial penalties,” he told The Daily Memphian. “Fines and things like that will be removed.”

The ordinance will include exceptions for those with asthma or who have other trouble breathing or are claustrophobic.

“If for some reason wearing a mask is medically or emotionally harmful to you, you don’t have to wear it,” Warren said. “And the rest of us who can do it, will wear a mask for you and to protect you. You still need to keep your six feet distance from people.”

Mask requirement clears council on first reading

Businesses and institutions that have their own mask requirements will get direction from the city, which is encouraging the use of masks beyond the ordinance.

“That way, people will know they are going into a place that understands the rules about covering your face,” Warren said. “And then we’ll watch and see what happens with that. If that doesn’t work, we can always add the fines later to the ordinance.”

Shelby County Health Department director Alisa Haushalter has said the countywide health directive could change from a recommendation to a requirement depending on the spread of the virus.

A homeowner on Mulberry Street by the National Civil Rights Museum who didn’t want to be identified had a front-porch view Saturday evening of two different groups – those on their way to the museum’s courtyard for a protest and those going for a night out to some of the South Main restaurants and bars.

The homeowner noticed those heading for the protest were wearing masks for the most part, and those heading for a night out weren’t for the most part.

A mask was the first order of business at the protest for those who didn’t come with one.

“Does everybody have a mask?” organizer DeVante Hill asked at the start of the rally. “We don’t want you out here without a mask on.”

Frank Johnson wore a mask with a nonpolitical print pattern as he met fellow activists outside the museum. A few of the masks in the crowd bore the slogan “I Can’t Breathe,” but most had no message.

For Johnson, there is no political statement in wearing a mask to a protest. It’s part of a careful coexistence.

“I have a sister with a compromised immune system due to cancer,” he said. “I have to be extra special careful. We still have to be protective because this epidemic is still with us.”

Due to the pandemic, Johnson lost his job at the Visible Music College along with his health insurance coverage.

“I still have to protect myself,” he said. “I may have some underlying health conditions that I don’t know about. I don’t want this disease.”

But he wants to remain politically active while practicing social distancing and both are priorities to him.

Mask requirement clears council on first reading

But those on the other side of the political spectrum see masks as a symbol of government over-reaching, telling citizens what to do instead of asking or recommending.

Memphis City Council members who didn’t vote against Warren’s ordinance on first and second readings still had questions about how Memphis police officers would enforce a requirement.

Warren says police director Michael Rallings has similar concerns, as well as how to prioritize the enforcement of a mask rule.

In the world of protest and activism, facial coverings are regarded as an indicator peaceful protest might not stay peaceful or that intentions of some in a peaceful crowd are different than others.

The best evidence of what singular moment this is can be found in Mayor Jim Strickland’s statement the day after the May 27 protest that was the city’s first over the death of George Floyd and ended with five arrests in Midtown. 

“It’s right and understandable for people to express their frustration through peaceful protest,” Strickland said in the prepared statement. “However, I wish last night’s protesters would have all had on masks, been six feet apart and gone through proper channels to ensure everyone’s safety. By not doing so, protesters and our officers were unnecessarily put at risk.”

Just before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, activist and Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer was among those scheduled to travel to Ghana as part of a delegation from the Memphis in May International Festival.

She didn’t go because of her concerns about the virus. Like Warren, she has rarely been seen without a face mask the last two months.

Sawyer followed the same thought process as Warren, but ultimately agreed the County Commission should not make wearing a mask a binding law.

The reaction from her constituents, even after she made it nonbinding, was vocal and political.

“The response is worse than when I asked the mayor to stop having gun shows at Shelby Farms,” Sawyer said on The Daily Memphian Politics Podcast.

“It’s surprising that they are even angrier about the facial coverings than they were about us taking the gun shows away from Shelby Farms,” she said.

Sawyer blames President Donald Trump for making masks political by his refusal to at least be seen wearing a mask, and with conflicting statements about the efficacy of wearing a mask.

Politics Podcast: Thoughts on the Democratic majority in county government

Warren, a physician who also serves on the local COVID-19 task force, is adamant that science -- not politics -- is the reason for his proposal. Although there are some economic reasons in the middle ground.

“We can’t really afford another shutdown,” he said. “And that’s what will happen if we don’t do that correctly. If we don’t do this right, this is going to happen. This isn’t a political thing that you can wish one way or the other.”

But Warren acknowledges some see it as political.

<strong>Jeff Warren</strong>

Jeff Warren

“It has become political. But really, it only takes 60% of people wearing a face mask 60% of the time to make this particular infection go away,” he said. “There will be some people who don’t want to do it just because they think somehow it’s a political right, which it’s not – no more than driving a car is a right. You can’t drive your car drunk.”

Warren was wearing a face mask before the Centers for Disease Control changed its thinking and said it was necessary in the pandemic.

Wearing one in the daily task force meeting in late March, Warren saw a group of reporters gathered for a press conference with Strickland and lectured the group on the need for face masks and social distancing.

“You are way too close to each other,” Warren said several times before going into the meeting.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

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COVID face coverings Jeff Warren Tami Sawyer Frank Johnson DeVante Hill

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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