Mask or maskless: The politics of measuring individual responsibility in South Carolina

Health experts and government leaders say more of us should be wearing masks. Political perspective and personal perception shape whether we will.

Nathaniel Cary
Greenville News

Lakisha Davis wears a mask. As a health-care worker at a Greenville nursing home, she doesn't want to potentially spread the coronavirus to work, where it could be deadly for elderly residents. And she said her mother, also a nursing home employee, tested positive for COVID-19 after suffering only a loss of smell.

Davis' boyfriend, Jeffrey Brewton, doesn't wear a mask. He works as a mechanic.

Neither has stopped working during South Carolina's economic shutdown. 

"Regardless of if I wear a mask or not, if somebody's car is infected with germs, they're going to get on my skin, they're going to get on my car," Brewton said. "The only thing I do is pray and hope everything will be all right."

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So it goes in South Carolina, where donning a mask is optional, left up to individual measure of responsibility and based on what a person believes about a virus that is spreading more rapidly through the state — and Greenville, in particular — than at any previous time. 

For some, the face masks recommended by health professionals are uncomfortable. Others just sometimes forget. Some make a point to wear one every time they go in a building, others just at work when they're told they must. 

Not one of the 11 people interviewed outside of grocery stores in Greenville and Simpsonville this week said their choice was political. They cited various sources that helped them form their opinions on masks, including a television doctor, politicians and public health officials.

What leaders do and say — from President Donald Trump to Gov. Henry McMaster — shapes how followers act, said Brent Nelsen, a political science professor at Furman University.

Wednesday, medical leadership in South Carolina struck a somber tone. 

'I am more concerned about COVID-19 in SC than I have ever been before'

Dr. Linda Bell, epidemiologist with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, spoke first at a press conference in Columbia and read off that day's statistics: 528 new cases and 7 more deaths due to the novel coronavirus. It marked the third-highest single day case total yet.

The highest day came a day later, Thursday, when 687 cases were confirmed. There were 125 cases reported Thursday in Greenville County, alone, home of the state's highest overall total of COVID-19 cases.

DHEC officials have said local residents' behavior, not just an increase in testing, is at play.

Coronavirus updates in SC:Here's what you need to know

Dr. Brannon Traxler, a preventative medicine physician with DHEC, said Latino residents account for about a third of the recent cases in Greenville County. 

Dr. Marcus Blackstone, the chief clinical officer for Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, said COVID-19 is spreading into younger populations, high school and college students.

All of the trends are pointing in the wrong direction. Percent of tests to be positive? Up. Hospitalizations? Up. Projected weekly cases? Up. Projected deaths by October 1? Way up, to 2,379, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, which is posted daily on DHEC's website. 

“I have to say that today I am more concerned about COVID-19 in South Carolina than I have ever been before," Bell said. “For the past two weeks we have seen some of our highest daily numbers since the pandemic began, and there have also been recent increases in our percent positive, which tells us that more people than we would hope for, who are being tested, are sick.

“This is why we need everyone’s help in reemphasizing how critical it is for every one of us, every day, to wear a mask in public and to stay physically distanced from one another."

McMaster then called it a shame that more people weren't wearing masks, but he placed the impetus on each person's "social responsibility" to choose to wear a mask rather than more government intervention. 

Wearing cloth face masks in public settings, especially in settings where social distancing is difficult, can protect a potentially asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carrier from spreading the virus to others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

“It is up to the people to determine what precautions need to be followed,” McMaster said.

In Greenville County, those precautions have been mixed. Only a handful out of hundreds of people in downtown Greenville Wednesday night wore masks while gathered on sidewalks or at street crossings. At the Publix shopping center in McBee Station, employees wore masks, as did about half the shoppers Wednesday evening. 

Lola Norris, 81, said she wears a mask nearly everywhere inside, but she forgot hers Wednesday. Her husband Eulis, 80, said he spent most of his time outside and didn't wear a mask unless he was at the doctor's office and they made him. 

"I just don't worry about it," he said. 

He didn't yet know anyone who'd caught the virus.

Gov. Henry McMaster says he won't mandate masks

When McMaster visited the Fibertex Nonwovens plant in Gray Court last Friday, he wore a mask while seated but took it off to speak. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross wore his mask the entire time, even while speaking. 

McMaster has worn a mask in a photo that showed him visiting a Lizard's Thicket restaurant in Columbia. He hasn't worn one at frequent briefings held in the state Emergency Operations Center. Bell wore a mask some of the time when she wasn't speaking at the latest briefing Wednesday. 

McMaster has refused to issue a mandate that people wear masks or that businesses such as restaurants require employees to wear masks. He said there's a limit on what the government could do and a mandate couldn't be enforced anyway.

Yet 14 states have required masks to be worn either everywhere in public or when social distancing isn't possible, according to #Masks4All, an international organization started by researchers and scientists to advocate for wearing masks as a way to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Another 31 states have some mask requirement, either for parts of the state or for employees or businesses.

Here in South Carolina more than in other parts of the country, whether to wear a mask may be a political statement, said Brent Nelsen, a political science professor at Furman University. 

"The mask has become a symbol of all the other things that divide us as a society," Nelsen said. 

For each person, Nelsen said, the mask symbolizes a juxtaposition — is the disease or the economy the greatest threat? Do you listen to the health experts or make your own choice? Do you base your behavior on scientific guidance or your own intuition? Does social responsibility or individual liberty guide you?

Is it weak vs. strong, meaning you're a healthy strong person versus a scared or weak person physically or mentally? 

"I get these feelings all over town," Nelsen said. 

Much of it stems from the political divide in America, he said. 

President Trump has refused to wear a mask in the White House

The president has refused to wear a mask in front of cameras or in the White House. Trump didn't wear a mask outdoors at a Memorial Day event while presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden did.

After sharing a message on Twitter that appeared to mock Biden for wearing a mask, Biden called Trump "an absolute fool" for politicizing masks in a CNN interview.

Trump was later asked about it.

“Biden can wear a mask," Trump said. "I wasn't criticizing him. Why would I ever do a thing like that?"

The difference in mask wearing falls largely along political lines, with abandoning masks driven largely by Republican men, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. 

While a majority of both parties said they wear a mask either all or most of the time in public (89% of Democrats, 58% of Republicans), just 49% of Republican men said they wore one at least most of the time. 

"The mask has become this symbol of basically Red vs. Blue, and Trump feeds into that of course, because he says, 'Everybody around me is going to wear a mask, but I'm not going to wear a mask,'" Nelsen said. 

Regarding Trump's handling of the virus, McMaster is walking a number of lines, Nelsen said. Because if the virus continues to spike in the state, which it has since Memorial Day weekend, "everybody's going to look at him," not Trump, Nelsen said. 

When John Mansure wheeled his cart loaded with groceries outside Publix Wednesday evening, he removed the surgical mask he'd worn inside. As an administrator at Prisma Health, he said his decision to wear a mask was driven by health experts and experience fighting the virus within the health system. 

"It's so easy to do, why not do it?" Mansure said. "It's for others' protection. It's for my protection." 

He said his decision wasn't based on politics, though in his case the political line fit. 

Chris Queen wasn't wearing a mask when he carried groceries to his car at Wal-Mart on Davenport Road in Simpsonville. He didn't think the masks did any good but did wear one when required to at his hotel job.

He believed the virus was like the flu, that the government was corrupt, that only the elderly needed to wear a mask and that if he practiced good hygiene, it wouldn't affect him. 

"If you take care of yourself, you don't have to worry about it," he said.

Greenville is preparing to urge people to 'Just Wear It'

The city of Greenville is preparing public service announcements titled "Just Wear It" after Greenville was identified as a coronavirus hot spot last week. 

Elizabeth Brotherton said the city had identified three factors why people aren't wearing masks. First, she said, "They feel that it can be perceived as a political statement."

Other reasons include that wearing a mask symbolizes that life isn't normal and also that masks are just uncomfortable to wear, Brotherton said. 

Jacqueline Darveaux of Simpsonville said masks are uncomfortable, though she wears one nearly every time she's in public. 

"When we go to church, we've got to wear it for an hour, and it's a little irritating," Darveaux said. 

Patty Girone of Simpsonville said she always wears a mask inside public buildings. She has high blood pressure, her husband is diabetic, and they have a new grandchild. 

"They just say it's a good idea to wear it," she said. "I'm not a follower. If the majority of the people weren't wearing it, I still would wear it because it's my responsibility to do the best I can."

Milford Logan of Simpsonville wore a mask to shop at Wal-Mart and said he wears a mask most of the time to protect himself and others.

He said he would feel comfortable not wearing a mask when the majority of people were no longer wearing one. 

"That's a way's off," he said. "We need to just stay safe, stay positive."

– Kirk Brown contributed to this report.

Nathaniel Cary is an investigative reporter at The Greenville News. He can be reached at ncary@greenvillenews.com or @nathanielcary on Twitter.