After weeks of saying that healthy people didn’t need to wear masks in public, elected leaders and health officials across the country in April reversed course and began recommending them in stores and places where it’s difficult to stay 6 feet apart. You can’t get on a plane or in an Uber without one. People are required to wear one when they leave home in New York.
But in Virginia, you can still get into a Walmart, or a Home Depot or an ABC store with an uncovered face.
Richmond Times-Dispatch reporters spent nearly 15 hours observing nearly 2,900 people entering stores for groceries and other supplies in the city and neighboring localities this week. More than half — 1,480 — didn’t wear a mask or other face covering. Two dozen more were doing it wrong: A woman walked into the Home Depot in Chester on Wednesday with a black headband wrapped behind her neck and over her mouth, with nothing covering her nose.
Shopping with an uncovered face increases the risk of contagion for everyone around you. Many who ultimately test positive don’t show symptoms, making it hard to tell they’re spreading the virus to others. But the measure often is positioned as a preference, in a nod to a culture that emphasizes individual freedom.
It shouldn’t be, said Lois Shepherd, a biomedical ethics professor at the University of Virginia’s medical school who sees similarities between the arguments against masks and vaccination.
“These are not just individual choices, because we live in societies where we unintentionally can affect the health of others. We’re supposed to drive safely. We should wear a mask. All of these things we do not only for ourselves, but for the rest of society,” Shepherd said. “I think now this is so culturally and politically hijacked in a way, the issue of wearing a mask, I think it’s having a symbolic effect of where are you politically.”
A Gallup poll last month found that the percentage of Americans who report that they have worn a mask outside increased from 38% to 62% in just one week, but the same poll found that Democrats were far more likely to report wearing a mask than Republicans, and that more people report wearing masks in cities than in rural areas.
In The Times-Dispatch’s small snapshot, people shopping in Hanover County were least likely to be wearing a mask, with only 1 in 3 covering their faces. Shoppers in the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico were both right below 50%, and Richmond was just above, with 54% of shoppers wearing masks.
The numbers swung from store to store, but without a clear pattern beyond locality. More than 60% of people entering the Wegmans in Chesterfield wore a mask Monday afternoon. In Hanover, fewer than a third of the people entering a Home Depot on Wednesday morning did. On average, the people observed were no more likely to be wearing a mask into a grocery store than a hardware store.
A recent study and computer model from the University of California, Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology suggested that if 80% of people would wear masks in public, the spread of the coronavirus would plummet. But the impact of masks falls dramatically in the model if the rate of people using them dips below 50%.
Dr. Danny Avula, director of Richmond’s and Henrico’s health districts, said Thursday that everyone should behave as if they and everyone else are infected, as well as continue to stay home when possible, wash hands frequently and wear masks in public.
“This is going to be an emotional time. I’ve already seen the social media threads a lot over the last couple of months where people are quick to judge and to shame others for their choices,” Avula said. “I just want to remind folks that this is a time to focus your energy on keeping yourself and your loved ones safe. And then on helping others in productive ways stay safe and healthy if you have the capacity.”
The message on masks has been jumbled since the coronavirus spread here in March: Officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization initially said people shouldn’t wear them, as the world grappled with a shortage of specialized N95 masks for medical personnel and first responders.
The agencies reversed course last month, announcing that face coverings can help keep people from infecting others — even if they don’t protect the wearer.
On April 3, President Donald Trump announced new CDC guidelines and said people should wear masks in public settings where social distancing is difficult, such as grocery stores or pharmacies. He said wearing a mask is “very simple to do” before noting that it’s voluntary and that he wouldn’t be doing it.
Not long ago, wearing a mask in Virginia could get you arrested: A woman was charged in January with breaking the state’s 1950s-era mask law when her face was covered after a gun rights protest on a morning in Richmond with temperatures hovering in the 20s. The charge was later dropped.
“Guidance has been conflicting,” Virginia Health Commissioner Norm Oliver said last week. “You can go way back in this and find people saying they don’t work. Then there was the recommendation to use them, primarily to protect others. And that’s certainly the case, if you’re wearing a mask and you are ill, it’s less likely you’ll expose others.”
He added: “But there’s been increasing evidence that it is also protection for yourself. The CDC guidance and ours is that if you’re in a situation where you can’t practice social distancing — outside of your home — you should have a face covering.”
Oliver said that a piece of cloth about the size of a dinner napkin, folded and with ties on both ends, is an option for people without a manufactured mask.
For some, the decision is more practical than political. When Short Pump Town Center reopened Friday to the creep of summer heat, many shoppers and passersby walked around with masks gripped firmly in hand, tucked away in purses or hanging off one ear — but not always covering their faces.
They said it was just too hot.
A group of eight family friends, all without masks, who drove from Powhatan County to celebrate being able to shop again, reasoned that if you’re staying safe and washing hands, masks aren’t necessary.
Another shopper, Kathleen Wright, awaited her curbside pickup order at Crate & Barrel with her two sons, who also weren’t wearing masks.
“We knew it was an open environment and we have no plans to go inside of stores,” she said. “But typically when we’re going into places or being close with other people, we end up wearing masks.”
Larry Rice wore a mask Monday afternoon when he stopped at a CVS in South Richmond. He said he has worn one since March 11, the day his mother died.
“It’s self-protection as well as protecting others,” Rice said. “I suspect it will be this way for a while.”
A spokeswoman for Kroger said that its employees are now required to wear masks. And while they’re voluntary for shoppers, the company prefers that customers wear one in the stores or use pickup or delivery for groceries.
At the Walmart in Short Pump on Wednesday, health care workers in scrubs were accompanied by friends and roommates, none wearing masks. Families followed. Kids toyed with the planters outside the store. Sometimes the kids were wearing masks. Some of the parents were.
Others dangled theirs below their nostrils and clutched babies who also had no coverings. They walked past a sign that read “face covering recommended while you shop.”
Only a few glanced toward it.