Obey the laws, and wear the gauze: a glance at mask-wearing in the US

Six layers of gauze to fight off a deadly virus: In 1918, that was what one doctor recommended to those who tended to victims of the Spanish Flu. In those days, masks were thought to filter out the “bacteria” of the virus, and were declared mandatory in some US cities. 

“Obey the laws, and wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws,” was a popular rhyme of the period. 

A nurse, wearing a cloth mask, cares for a patient at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

A century later, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, history is appearing to repeat itself. Americans go on walks and grocery store runs wearing masks made of bandannas, t-shirts, and more. 

But not all Americans have taken to mask-wearing so easily. At one “You Can’t Close America” rally  in Austin, Texas last week, demonstrators carried anti-mask signs, demanding that stay-at-home orders be overturned. 

President Donald Trump has voiced support for reopening the economy, easing restrictions, and repeating calls for a future where Americans can leave their masks at home.

“We want our country back. We’re not going to be wearing masks forever,” he said at a White House COVID task force press conference. 

A Legacy of anti-mask laws

Why do masks carry such a stigma in American culture? In Asian countries, masks are frequently worn to prevent the spread of commonplace viruses. However, the custom is largely absent in Western countries. The United States has had anti-mask legislation on the books for more than 150 years. Exceptions are made for festivals and holidays, theatrical performances and physical safety for workers. 

For instance, a Louisiana law prohibits the donning of a “facial disguise of any kind or description, calculated to conceal or hide the identity of the person or to prevent his being readily recognized” in public places. However, every year on Mardi Gras, hundreds of revelers take to the streets in masks. 

The root of these anti-mask laws, and the corresponding stigma attached to facial coverings, can be traced to the historical connection between masks and criminal activity. For instance, New York’s anti-mask law was enacted after a violent tenants’ revolt in 1845. In other states, anti-mask laws were passed during the Jim-Crow Era to put a stop to many intimidating and threatening actions performed by the Ku Klux Klan. 

That’s not to say that people decided to stop wearing masks entirely. In 1990, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld misdemeanor charges against a man who wore a Klansman mask in public.  

“A nameless, faceless figure strikes terror in the human heart,” stated the court’s opinion.

Mask-wearing in the time of Spanish-Flu

The dual implication of the mask existed during the time of the Spanish-Flu as well. Celebrations continued to feature them in large numbers. For example, in the years before and after the onset of the pandemic, children and adults would hit the streets during Thanksgiving in costume, fit with masks and wigs. 

“Horns and rattles are worked overtime. The throwing of confetti and even flour on pedestrians is an allowable pastime,” one newspaper column exclaimed. 

Thanksgiving Maskers circa. 1910 (Library Of Congress)

However, the mandated mask-wearing during the Spanish Flu did cause a stir in some cities. In January 1919, the Los Angeles Times reported that one woman from Chicago went “insane from sheer fright when she stepped from a Santa Fe Train beheld the masked city” of Pasadena. 

“The hospital physicians say there is no doubt that fear engendered by the masks temporarily unbalanced her mind.” 

Residents and local politcians protested mask wearing in city-council meetings. In Sacramento, it took four attempts to pass a mask-wearing ordinance, while Los Angeles rejected ordinances entirely.

Some doctors rejected masks, warning that masks should not be worn “in the open”, because they would “shut out fresh air and sunshine, the deadliest enemies of the germs of influenza.” 

Concerns over Racial-profiling in 2020

During the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians have also expressed dissatisfaction with mask regulations, though their reasoning is very different.

Georgia state lawmaker Nikema Williams, a Democrat, demanded that the states’ Jim-Crow era anti-masking law be overturned, worried that the law could adversely affect people of color in the time of the novel coronavirus.

“I don’t want anyone to put their health and safety on the line from wearing a mask because they don’t want to be profiled in a grocery store or they’re picking up medicine at a pharmacy,” she said to Fox 5 Atlanta. 

Governor Kemp suspended the state’s anti-mask law on April 15.

Other state excutives have commented directly on concerns about law-enforcement and mask wearing. After the announcement of the CDC reccomendation, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said “no law enforcement will be bothering anybody because they have a covering on their face.”

In a video posted on March 11, two black men in an Illinois Walmart were followed by police and forced to leave after they refused to remove medical masks. 

Nearly a month later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone wear cloth face coverings in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain” in order to slow the spread of the virus.

Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker annouced he was “thinking hard” about mandating residents to wear face masks.

“If you’re not wearing a mask and you’re not keeping socially distant — those two things together lead to people getting sick,” he said.

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