COCHISE COUNTY — People are calling each other names over it. Some have made up their minds about a person’s political views depending on whether they wear one or not. Many individuals say that people who wear them care about others, and those who don’t wear them are selfish and disrespectful.
A security guard in Michigan was even shot to death because of it.
Face masks — whether they’re multicolored and fashionable, or clinical-looking and plain — are no longer just a precautionary measure amid the pandemic. They also have become a topic of controversy and contention that seem to be dividing people in all sorts of ways.
In Cochise County, the majority of people questioned in man-on-the-street interviews conducted by the Herald/Review, believe wearing a mask should be a person’s choice, not a government mandate.
Interviews were done in Douglas, Bisbee, Sierra Vista, Benson and Willcox during the last week, and more people than not were not wearing masks. Those who were donning masks — except for one man in Bisbee — said they should be worn by choice.
Mayors from some of the cities and towns also weighed in, and like their constituents, said face coverings should be an individual’s option.
Some opinions were stronger than others.
“Everybody is giving mixed messages, it’s just nuts,” said Hereford resident John Smith on Tuesday as he sat outside a coffee shop in Sierra Vista “It’s clearly political. It’s all about the president and trying to get him out of office.”
“This whole thing (masks) is FUBAR,” added Smith, who was not wearing a mask. “You know what that means, right?”
A few tables away from Smith, Chris Froelich, a major in the Army who works on Fort Huachuca, said wearing one should be a personal choice unless it’s required by a business owner or government entity.
But he also said he would feel pressured if he were the only one in a public place not wearing one.
According to several published reports, that’s what recently happened to Vice President Mike Pence, who leads the White House’s coronavirus task force. Pence sparked an outcry after he visited the Mayo Clinic in April and was the only person in his group not wearing a mask.
Likewise, President Donald Trump appeared maskless in public on Memorial Day and was lambasted for it, while former Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill, both donned black masks on their Memorial Day outing. Trump later mocked Biden for the face covering. Biden said of wearing a mask, “It’s about respect.”
That sentiment its echoed by signs posted on the doors of some of the trendy shops on Bisbee’s Tombstone Canyon. “Bisbee is a community that RESPECTS others rights to be healthy. Please respect our town and our population. And wear a mask.”
But the sign was not posted on the door of the Killer Bee Wild Desert Honey shop, also on Bisbee’s main thoroughfare. Store manager Betty Krug had a purple mask around her neck.
“It’s all about making people feel comfortable,” Krug said. “I always ask people if they want me to put mine on. They say ‘no.’ They ask me if they should put it on, and I say ‘no.’”
“People are frightened. But it should be up to them to wear one or not,” Krug added. “Making it mandatory would be fascist.”
None of the businesses and shops visited by the Herald/Review in other municipalities had signs on their storefront doors.
While employees at grocery stores and other businesses around Cochise County are required to wear masks by their respective employers, none of the businesses are forcing their patrons to.
At the Bisbee Coffee Co. last week, several people sat outside and none wore face masks. Some were locals, others tourists.
Bisbee Mayor David Smith recently told the Herald/Review that he urges people to wear masks and gloves whenever they’re in public.
On the Facebook page Bisbee City Watch, Smith posted this: “The mask vs. no mask argument is unwinnable by either side and perhaps we should remember that this virus wave will end, and friendships fractured over this polarizing argument may not mend.”
“We are all in this together and we still have personal choices and in reality, only answer to ourselves. Hopefully, all of us will do a better job of respecting each other’s personal decisions by taking the hygiene steps you feel appropriate and removing yourself from being around those that you feel don’t. Business owners DO have the right to require masks be worn in their place of business and although I cannot mandate, I do strongly recommend the continued use of masks in public settings.”
On the same Facebook page where Smith posted his views, another Bisbee resident said: “Just came back from Safeway and couldn’t believe the number of stupid people not wearing masks...totally oblivious to reality!!”
On the same Facebook page, others bemoaned the fact that tourists are not wearing masks while in Bisbee.
Maynard Kreps, who lives in the Warren district of Bisbee, is the only person interviewed by the Herald/Review who said masks should be mandatory.
Kreps, who was about to take off on his electric bicycle after patronizing the Bisbee Coffee Co., was not wearing a face mask at the time.
“I would wear one all the time if they weren’t so uncomfortable,” Kreps said. “I don’t wear it when I’m on my bike, but I have it with me and I think they’re necessary and so they should be mandatory.”
“I wear it whenever I go into a public place,” Kreps added.
The Centers For Disease Control’s website recommends cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing can be a challenge. But the CDC also calls the masks a “voluntary public health measure.”
“The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations,” its website states.
Mayors in other Cochise County cities said masks are recommended and give people a sense of safety, but they should not be imposed on anyone.
Tombstone Mayor Dusty Escapule said the masks are recommended by “people who have knowledge and know about these things.”
Escapule, whose town also depends heavily on tourism, said city employees and store owners are wearing masks, but are not forcing anyone else to.
“I think it’s more a feeling that we care about their (visitors) safety,” Escapule said. “I would say that about 70 percent of the people who are visiting here are wearing masks, and most of them are older.”
Toney King, mayor of Benson, said he wears masks in public and he also carries hand sanitizer.
“I recommend that people wear them, but it should be their choice,” King said.
Sierra Vista Mayor Rick Mueller said: “Face masks are highly recommended, not required.”
While many people interviewed said they would not begrudge anyone who wears or doesn’t wear a mask, an article written by Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., in Psychology Today, says “masks are triggering conflict and rage.”
An extreme example of that rage occurred in April in Flint, Michigan, where a security guard at a Family Dollar was shot to death by three members of a family after the victim asked one of the individuals to put on a mask before entering the store. The governor of Michigan had previously put out an order making masks mandatory in public.
One of the perpetrators was arrested and Flint police are still searching for the other two, according to the Associated Press.
In his Psychology Today article, Gillihan, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania, says it’s not the mask itself that irks people.
“Like many points of controversy, it’s not the thing itself but what it represents,” he said in the article. “Masks may be seen as a marker of political loyalty, triggering feelings of ‘us-versus-them.’”
“A politically liberal person may assume that someone wearing a mask is ‘on their team,’ while those who don’t wear masks must be Fox News-watching Republicans,” he wrote. “The anger they feel is not simply about the mask, but about believing the non-mask wearer is a certain type of person.”
“On the flip side, the politically conservative might interpret calls for masks as politically-driven efforts to play up the seriousness of the coronavirus,” Gillihan added. “Being asked to don a mask then becomes not just a request to protect the health of others, but to give up their worldview and political allegiance. “
In a guest column in the New York Times on Monday, Margaret Renkl echoed Gillihan’s assessment, saying that “wearing a mask has become the political equivalent of wearing a bumper sticker on your face.”
In some areas of Cochise County, it may not be so much a political statement, but more a revelation of where someone is from.
Susie Vaughn, owner of Buffalo Sisters Antiques and Collectibles in Willcox, said she knows when an out-of-towner is visiting the area.
“If someone comes in wearing a mask, I know they’re not from here,” Vaughn said. “I have a mask, but I don’t require that anyone wear one in my store. I’ll only wear one if I have to.”
A few doors down from Vaughn, Rodney Brown, owner of a barbecue eatery, said people in Willcox are not too worried about the mask controversy.
“I believe in choices,” Brown said. “I don’t look down on people who wear them, or don’t wear them. Willcox is pretty laid back. We’re not even worried about most of it.”
Douglas resident Jacqueline Suarez said she would like to stop thinking about COVID-19 and the mask versus no-mask debate. But every time she sees someone wearing a mask, it evokes feelings of desolation.
“When I see everybody wearing one, I feel really sad because people are turning away from you,” Suarez said. “When this all started I was in Walmart and it seems that everyone was wearing a mask except me. I had to cough and I held it. I think people need to get over this and get on with their lives.”
Benson resident Michael Phillips had a white surgical mask around his neck as he sat on a bench outside the Ace Hardware on 4th Street last Friday. Like Suarez, he said society is becoming too frightened.
“I wear a mask out of respect for other people,” Phillips said. “But I wish people wouldn’t be so afraid of each other.”