The masked and the unmasked

The masked and the unmasked

Standard issue mask from Kaiser Permanente. Photo: Ryan Anderson 2021.

Before 2020 and COVID-19, I never thought much about masks. Now I think about them all the time. One question that keeps coming up is why they have become so controversial and contentious, especially here in the US. Why all the resistance? These questions are on my mind constantly. The whole subject of mask-wearing is often so tense that it can be difficult to even mention the subject. Masks have become a proxy for not only what people believe about COVID-19, but also other issues such as ideas about freedom and liberty, individualism vs. collectivism, the role of science in society, and government power.

All that in a little mask.

So how can we understand all the mask resistance? How can we break through some of the tension, conflict, and mistrust? In anthropology, we tend to approach these kinds of issues through long-term ethnographic research. Spend time with people, listen to them, try to see where they are coming from. The basic idea is to try to “meet people where they are” in order to understand the world through their eyes (see Fiske 2016 on this argument in relation to climate change skepticism).[i] This kind of work is not easy, especially with highly contentious issues.

Last summer I saw one good example of an attempt to “meet people where they are,” but it wasn’t the work of any anthropologists. It was this video by two guys (Chad Kroeger and JT Parr from the Going Deep podcast) who did some comical outreach about masks in Huntington Beach. If you have been following the ups and downs of that beachside community over the past year, you know that Chad and JT didn’t choose the easiest site for community outreach.

In the video, people’s reactions are all over the place: One woman says she doesn’t wear a mask because she thinks they are a health risk. One man said people don’t need to wear masks because “saltwater kills that shit.” Another guy on a bike says he’s not pro-mask because “it’s all fake, dude, come on!” And yet another blows off the idea that wearing a mask could help us open back up sooner, saying that’s just “a talking point on the TV bro.” In the video, one man calls Coronavirus a “bullshit lie” and throws around some profanity. And then, at the end of the video, there’s the guy who says that Chad and JT can’t tell him what his rights are, that he doesn’t believe in wearing masks, and ends with: “if you want some of me come on and get this.”

Not everyone gets angry or completely dismisses the idea of wearing a mask, however. Some are willing to at least talk to Chad and JT. Two young guys even accept a couple masks and swear on “Tyler, the Creator” to actually wear them. Chad and JT offer masks to two young women, who say no thanks, they already have some. So why aren’t they wearing them, Chad and JT ask. One of the women says it’s because they left them in their car. “Oh, ok, that makes sense,” responds Chad.

I have to hand it to these two guys. They have a pretty good ground game. Chad and JT do an incredible job maintaining their cool in the face of some serious hostility. The video is both humorous and troubling all at once. The piece highlights a wide range of responses to masks, from the negligent and ambivalent to the violent. I think their approach shows some of the benefits of trying to spend time on the ground and gain a better understanding of where people are coming from–including the reasons why some people are resistant.

I have made some of my own observations the past year as well. This wasn’t part of any formal research, just some of what I have seen in day-to-day life. I just moved back to the California coast, which means that I have been able to get down to the beach more often again. It’s been nice to get outside after months and months of shelter-in-place, although life is a lot different than it was in the pre-COVID days. Beach trips now mean thinking about masks, crowds, social distancing, and which places are safer to go than others. It feels a bit like trying to run a gauntlet.

There’s one detail that I noticed about mask wearing though. It seemed like most people were not wearing masks at the beach. And I mean right down on the beach or walking along it via sidewalks and boardwalks. There was noticeably less compliance. I did a few informal counts and the rates were around 20-25% of people actually wearing masks.[ii]

But in the commercial areas right near the beach, things were very different. Most people were wearing masks, and it didn’t seem to be a big issue. They just did it. People may not have liked the requirements, but they went along with them. And for the most part, things seemed to be working ok. But down at the beach…it was a completely different story. So what’s going on here?

I think a lot of it comes down to ambiguity. In short, what I noticed is that the rules and expectations were pretty clearly laid out in the commercial zones. Each store or business put up a sign and explained what they expected before people walked in the door. And it worked. People complied for the most part. But the beach was a completely different scenario. While there were rules and pronouncements at the city and county level, it was actually pretty unclear what, exactly, people could and could not be doing when they were on the beach. There were few if any clear posted signs, and essentially no enforcement. While people knew about mask and social distancing mandates, it was not completely clear how they applied to the beach. It was a bit of a free-for-all.

So people improvised and did what they thought made sense…or just what they wanted to do. Some were defiant, others were practical. Surfers, for example, generally were not wearing masks…because they were in wetsuits and heading into the water. It didn’t make much sense to wear a mask on the way to jumping in the water. Overall, the situation at the beach was pretty haphazard. At times it seemed to work OK and people kept their distance and went about their business. At other times, however, it left a lot of room for stress, tension, and worse.

One of the lessons here is that ambiguity can easily breed confusion and conflict. And I think that’s a key problem. But the issue is not solely about ambiguity and the presence or absence of rules. As Elinor Ostrom and others have demonstrated, it depends on who creates, implements, and enforces those rules. There were mask mandates at the city and county level,  so they were essentially imposed top-down. But I think more people were willing to comply in commercial zones here in my coastal neighborhood, for example, because the rules were clear and perhaps because they were implemented by local users (business owners). It wasn’t as if there were city or state officials there implementing and enforcing those rules–it was up to the business owners and employees themselves. This is my running hypothesis, at least. Yes, there were instances of conflict and even protests over the mask mandates around town, but for the most part they seemed to work fairly well.

But again, down at the beach things were very different. Even so, there wasn’t exactly a lot of overt conflict. It was more a matter of confusion and ambiguity, which just added to the overall stress and anxiety of daily pandemic life. I do think that clear rules and guidelines at the beach would have helped, but one of the big challenges was actually a matter of who, exactly, should or could implement and enforce them. Much of my argument here comes from my work on the politics of conservation, particularly local resistance to and compliance with conservation projects. If people aren’t part of the process, it’s not surprising that they resist. But, it’s not as simple as just “getting the community on board” and expecting everything to work out.

Still, when it comes to the case at hand, that missing ingredient–the community of users who could actually implement and enforce rules–was something I have thought about a lot in the past year. I often wondered why there weren’t any attempts to involve communities, rather than just imposing rules and regulations and hoping for the best. Maybe there were such attempts, but I didn’t see or hear about them. It’s not an easy situation, but I think that community-based organizations could have helped quite a lot, especially if they were involved in a meaningful way. That, I think, would be a big step forward for ameliorating some of the ongoing tensions and conflicts between the masked and the unmasked. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for whatever comes next.


[i] Fiske, S.J., 2016. “Climate scepticism” inside the Beltway and across the Bay. Anthropology and Climate Change: From Actions to Transformations, pp.319-335.

[ii] This is not a proper representative sample, but just based upon a few instances and the general observation about less compliance. Overall, I think the observation holds, but I’d like to see some formal research on it.