The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In my red state, people see masks as unmanly. That’s Trump’s fault.

Caring about other people, apparently, is women’s work

President Trump holds a face mask during a tour of a Ford factory in Ypsilanti, Mich., that is making personal protective equipment. (Alex Brandon/AP)

In the last few years of my mother’s life, she was often hospitalized. Her brother who lived in town never once visited her in the hospital. When asked why, he would say, “I don’t like hospitals.”

I was 35 at the time, and I remember wondering how a grown man could get away with such an absurd statement. Did he think the rest of us liked hospitals? Did he think my mother liked being there, never knowing if she would go home again?

My uncle’s recurring refusal to visit my mother, and his inane rationale, hurt her, and it infuriated everyone in our family. But I soon came to realize he viewed hospital visits the same way he viewed sewing or baking: Comforting the sick was women’s work. What were we going to do, make him go?

A few weeks ago, when Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) announced we would begin to reopen our economy and asked all Kentuckians to wear masks inside public spaces, I heard echoes of my uncle all around me. “I don’t like masks,” people would mutter, because real men don’t wear masks — and, just like my uncle, what are we women (or those Democratic men) going to do, make them?

Kentucky isn’t the only place where that sentiment appears to be on the rise. Last week, CNN reported, “the issue of whether to wear a mask has again become a flash point. … There are 17 states where the number of coronavirus cases are trending up, and many governors have told citizens that now is an important time to wear a face covering.”

On Saturday, a man named Bill called into the Michelangelo Signorile radio show, and said, “I’m a [President] Trump supporter down here in Illinois, and about these masks and all that, thank God Trump is coming out and making fun of Joe Biden. I don’t wear a mask anywhere. I just went to the store, I mean, it’s all a big scam, that’s what I’d say.” Signorile said it was “pretty pathetic” to be “that insecure about your masculinity or something that you won’t put a mask on,” but the caller just spouted conspiracy theories about inflated the coronavirus numbers and said reporters in the White House press corps aren’t really wearing masks. (Which they are.)

With steady messaging and leadership-by-example from the governor’s office, Kentucky is not one of the 17 states with the virus trending up. But while our governor and his staff have set a good example in promoting the benefits of masks, it is fair to say the White House has not, and in a state Trump won by 30 points in 2016, this matters. As our Democratic governor was announcing the first phase to reopen our economy and asking Kentuckians to social distance and wear masks, the president was photographed with about a dozen senior staff and military leaders around a conference room table. No social distancing. Not a single man wearing a mask.

Remember when Trump said he wanted churches open by Easter Sunday? People in red states have not forgotten. Just last week, a pastor sent an email to his congregation that read, in part: “I wonder if our governor would be willing to release the daily abortion deaths alongside the state’s Coronavirus deaths each day in his briefings. I feel like we’re being robbed! ‘The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy.’ We missed Easter! We were robbed! Yes, we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection individually, online and with our families, but our chance to do it publicly was stolen from us by a secret enemy. That secret enemy is not the Coronavirus! That enemy is Satan himself. Now the government is telling churches when we can open and how many people can sit in our buildings. What’s next?”

We’re losing Easter services. But we aren’t losing Easter.

So how long can red states possibly stem the tide and stop a spike in coronavirus cases? By some measures, they’re already failing: Infection counts are rising in Alabama, and Mississippi, Utah, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Arizona all set records for daily case totals Friday.

Not coincidentally, those are all states where, like Kentucky, Trump remains popular. And we know what he thinks of masks.

On May 21, the president visited a Ford factory in Michigan that is manufacturing masks. Ford executives and employees wore masks. The president did not. He then mocked former vice president Joe Biden for wearing a mask while laying a wreath on Memorial Day. The constant and unwavering message from Trump could not be more clear: Masks denote weakness; masks are not “manly.”

As Jared Yates Sexton wrote in his 2019 memoir on toxic masculinity, “The Man They Wanted Me to Be,” Trump “is the ideal alpha male to anyone with a traditional worldview. He never apologizes, never admits weakness, and is always ready to fight. … Wearing a Make America Great Again hat means they don’t care if they hurt your feelings. Feelings, after all, are for women.”

Some African American men are criminalized in public spaces, says sociologist Dr. Rashawn Ray. It makes it harder for them to wear face masks during a pandemic. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Like wearing the MAGA hat, refusing to don a mask in a red state such as Kentucky proves your manhood, and no way are you going to follow the mandates, or even the suggestions, of a Democratic governor, even if it saves lives.

I live in a rural town about 15 miles from our state capital. On Wednesday, I went to Kroger for groceries. I would estimate 40 percent of the customers were not wearing masks, and almost all of the ones who weren’t were men. At Walmart, a mask-less man loudly harrumphed as he squeezed between me and the pasta shelves, clearly flouting the one-way aisle directive. At checkout, I told the clerk I’d counted 47 shoppers without masks and asked what he thought the percentages were. “Well, you know it’s not a rule,” he said. “So maybe 30 percent [are wearing masks]? The elderly, young moms with kids, that kind of thing.”

In the past weekend, a crowd of Second Amendment protesters without masks marched across the capitol grounds and onto the steps of the governor’s mansion and demanded he come outside. When he did not, they hung his effigy from a tree.

At a May 11 news conference, the president was asked, “How can you assure Americans that it’s safe to go to their workplaces when the most secure workplace in the country, the White House, cannot contain the spread of the coronavirus that has infected some of your own staff?” Trump said he believed the virus was very well-contained.

Less than three weeks later, more than 100,000 Americans are dead.

Coronavirus is rapidly becoming America's leading cause of death

In red states such as Kentucky, where allegiance to Trump so often trumps all else, I pray we don’t see a spike in sickness and death simply because wearing a mask in Trump country has been deemed “weak” and “unmanly” by the example of the president himself.

I would like to say I forgave my uncle for his failure to visit his sister at her sickest, at her most vulnerable. But that would be a lie. I was polite with him in the years after my mother’s death, but I knew how much he had hurt her, and I never forgot his selfishness. I already can see friends, neighbors — myself included — holding similar grudges over the pandemic. I suspect, as the death toll climbs, we will not forget who wore a mask and who did not.

As the election approaches, I can’t help but wonder how much more hurt and divided — those who wear masks vs. those who refuse — we will be when this is over. How many more of our families and neighbors will be torn apart by both the unrelenting ravages of covid-19 and a president who, predictably, would rather fan the flames than put out the fire.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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