Behind Many Masks: An Ethnographic Account of a Pandemic Borderlands

Behind Many Masks: An Ethnographic Account of a Pandemic Borderlands

Ready to go out enumerating (August 2020)

In June of 2020, four months into a global pandemic and a month after I graduated from college (via a YouTube livestream while sitting on the couch in my parents’ living room), I decided to apply to be a U.S. Census Bureau Enumerator. In college I’d learned the decennial count’s importance in determining state and local budgets and, as a bit of a geography nerd, had often used Census Bureau data in G.I.S. mapping projects. Applying felt like a way I could, in a small way, counter the Trump administration’s efforts to obstruct the count. Of course, hiring for journalism jobs had also dropped off a cliff and I just needed to find some work.

After a month of training videos featuring a woman in a trench coat enumerating apartments and brownstones in some dense urban metropolis, I met my new supervisor in an empty parking lot in Davenport, Iowa. He handed me my government-issue iPhone, clipboard, messenger bag, I.D. badge, hand sanitizer and white cloth face masks in a Ziploc bag. The masks were very important, he told me—the government wanted to keep Enumerators safe.

I spent August and September enumerating—following GPS routes down long gravel roads past hand-painted “Trump 2020” barn murals to addresses the iPhone displayed, parking my old Ford Taurus in front of farmhouses and in trailer parks, pulling the cloth mask over my nose and mouth, walking through overgrown yards and trash-covered driveways, and knocking on the doors of Iowans who hadn’t returned the Census survey by the April 1 deadline. The work didn’t look much like the training videos.

I quickly learned that people aren’t thrilled to meet a sweaty, mask-wearing government employee at their door asking for ten minutes of their time and a lot of (what they feel is) private information. It didn’t take long to discover just how unwelcome I was. Late one afternoon in early August I pulled up in front of a house just off the highway and walked up to the chain-link fence. As a half-dozen dogs announced my arrival in a cacophony of barks, I felt my heart begin to race, as it always did at this moment just before uncertain confrontation. A thin man with a goatee and white tank top emerged from the far side of the home, cursing at the dogs. Raising my badge and smiling, I read the now familiar text from my iPhone: “Hello sir, I’m from the U.S. Census Bureau. Do you have a few moments…”

“What happens if I refuse?” he interrupted, smirking. He continued towards me.

I started into the next prepared response: “Well, it’s in your best interest to respond to the Census because…”

“I’m not a fan of what the Census is doing,” he responded, “and I really don’t like that you’re coming here to my house wearing a mask in this fake-ass pandemic.” By now, we were face to face. “Are we done here?” He asked, raising a fist.

After I realized he wasn’t going to whack me, I returned the gesture, bumping my fist against his. Then, shaken, I returned quickly to the car, started the engine, and pulled out of the trailer park and back onto the highway. I stopped at a Casey’s convenience store next to the Mississippi River, took a deep breath, and went in to buy a Coke and settle my nerves. As I pushed the glass door open with a tinkling of bells, everyone in the packed store turned my way, like I was a masked gunslinger from out of town come to cause trouble in their saloon. I felt their eyes on me until I’d paid and left—none of them wore masks. 

A Tale of Two Cities

I grew up in the neighborhoods I was enumerating—in rural Iowa outside the city of Davenport. I went to college just across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Illinois. Together with Bettendorf, Iowa and Moline, Illinois, these cities form a bi-state region called the Quad Cities. Culturally and politically, there’s a long history of cooperation and conflict between these interconnected communities and states. Most of the time, Quad Citizens give little thought to these borderlands they call home—many live in one state and work in the other, traveling across the Mississippi River bridges multiple times each day. The COVID pandemic, however, brought state differences into sharp focus. Suddenly, our bi-state community felt like two separate worlds.

Quad Cities area from above. Rock Island to the left and Davenport to the right across the Mississippi River.

On March 17, 2020, Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker signed an executive order mandating face coverings in public places, closing schools and all non-essential businesses and requiring residents to stay at home. Across the River in Iowa no such order came, despite criticisms from mayors of several major cities and the Iowa Board of Medicine who predicted that without an official stay-at-home order with enforceable consequences for violation, Iowans wouldn’t take self-isolation seriously. As the weeks went on, Governor Kim Reynolds did single out particular types of business for closure—bars, tattoo parlors, swimming pools, adult toy shops—but the message was clear: no need to shelter-in-place, Iowans.

We Quad Citizens experienced firsthand the confusions and consequences of this lack of consistent messaging between states. The patchwork response fractured our bi-state community. As a college student studying in Illinois and living across the river in Iowa, my daily routines suddenly became violations of Illinois’ much more stringent stay-at-home order. I could go to a bar or sit down and eat in a restaurant on my side of the river (though I didn’t, of course) but couldn’t drive across the bridge to visit my girlfriend in Illinois without risking being pulled over by police. In Iowa, I could find no evidence of an ongoing pandemic; in Illinois police guarded grocery stores and streets were eerily deserted. 

As stay-at-home restrictions were slowly loosened in Illinois over the summer of 2020, I began to do all my shopping there and moved in with my girlfriend to keep my parents in Iowa safe. Like everyone else in Rock Island’s grocery stores and on its city sidewalks, I wore a surgical mask wherever I went. As fall arrived, I applied for the Census job and for the first time in months found myself spending time in Iowa again. There, I found a very different world than the one I’d been living in across the river—one that almost made me question the pandemic reality.

One morning in September, I put on my mask and drove through a drive-through chain in Rock Island to buy an iced coffee from a masked barista. No shops were yet open for inside dining. An hour later, Census messenger bag at my side and clipboard in hand, I realized I was the only one with my face covered in a crowded Iowa bar. A man at the counter joked “Oh no, the Census is here for us,” prompting widespread laughter. “You don’t have to wear that on our account, hun,” the bar’s owner told me when I started reading the questionnaire to her. I had gotten used to variations on the “take that mask off, you have to be too hot wearing that,” (which was actually a common complaint about masks back in 1918 too) greeting many times by now, and had a prepared response about government policy at the ready. The judgmental eyes and reverse mask-shaming was hard to resist—I was glad to have my “government employee” excuse as a sort of apology. The longer I was there, wearing a mask in that bar did start feeling sort of silly—surrounded by happy, healthy looking people, it was hard to remember a deadly pandemic was still raging. My mask, I think, was an uncomfortable reminder for them.

A statewide mask mandate was now actually—finally—in effect, but you wouldn’t know it looking around that bar. Governor Reynold’s mandate had exceptions galore—no need to mask if you can maintain six feet of distance, or you’re eating in a restaurant, or attending a religious gathering, or have a “medical condition.” Here, where the sides of several barns down the street featured hand painted “Trump 2020” murals, residents were already primed by their political affiliations to disregard the pandemic—the governor’s halfhearted mandates were too little, too late.

Across the county, masks had become yet another facet of identity politics—an identifier for whether you’d attended college or were a Democrat or Republican. I’d become pretty adept at impression management as a liberal in Iowa. I knew how to fly under the radar in particularly red areas. When enumerating Trump houses (always very clearly identifiable by their devotion to yard signs), I could hide the fact that I’d attended our local hub of “liberal indoctrination” (the liberal arts college), but my mask was an instant stigma marker—my politics were spread clearly all over my face. 

We know the reasons for spurning masks are multifold and complicated. On a personal level, politics play a big role, of course—Republicans see masks as another way “elite” experts are trying to infringe on their freedoms, while Democrats see wearing them as a moral imperative, a sacrifice for the health of the greater good. In Scott County, Iowa, 50.7% of registered voters are Democrats. In Rock Island, Illinois, across the river, 54.8% are. Like in many public health crises, gender plays a role too—masks are “a sign of weakness” to some men. Religion can also be a factor. Though early national public-health messaging about mask wearing was mixed and unclear, Illinois locked down fast and made it clear the pandemic was a serious crisis. It seems clear to me, as someone living in a masking borderlands, that top-down mask regulations, laws, and government messaging can play a significant role in changing attitudes and culture quickly. I struggled at first to conform in Illinois—it was hard to remember a mask when leaving the house. But there was intense social pressure to remember. In Iowa, there was never a new social norm to adapt to.

Now that many Americans are fully vaccinated, the CDC has loosened guidelines—only requiring masks on public transportation and telling vaccinated Americans they can “resume normal activities” unmasked. Local businesses have followed these new rules in both Iowa and Illinois, and I’m starting to see fewer people wearing masks in grocery stores and coffee shops. The changes, though, just add more ambiguity—Americans will have to trust the unmasked people they meet are being honest about their vaccination status.