When the history books one day look back at the thousands of easily-preventable deaths during the Great Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020, they will start with Facebook. The social media website has been “a coronavirus conspiracy hellhole” since the outbreak began, though its deadliest legacy will no doubt be its role in reinforcing Americans’ aversion to wearing masks. In the past month, a “Face Mask Safety — Know The Facts Before You Wear One” post went viral, spreading fake claims like that masks “decrease oxygen” and “increase toxin inhalation.” Another image, posted on June 11 and already shared over 25,000 times, alleged that the World Health Organization says “masks should only be used by health-care workers, caretakers, or by people who are sick with symptoms like fever and cough,” though such guidance has long been outdated.
Most alarming of all, a group called the “Freedom to Breathe Agency” has been hawking laminated “Face Mask Exempt Cards,” which reference the Americans with Disabilities Act to falsely assert that holders can bypass mask requirements. The cards represent an extreme example of what has become an increasingly common attempt to co-opt the language of disability so that non-disabled Americans can flaunt local mask ordinances. These attempts are especially galling because the scams actively harm the very communities that the anti-maskers are purporting to be a part of.
Let’s get the facts straight: Masks are confirmed to be one of the simplest and easiest ways to stop the spread of COVID-19, and no, they do not cut off your oxygen or give you CO2 poisoning. One recent study even shows that if 95 percent of Americans were to wear masks in public, as many as 30,000 lives could be saved by October. But as of last week, only about two-thirds of Americans actually said they wore masks regularly, while another study found some 15 percent of people haven’t even considered putting one on. You’ve probably seen the viral videos of anti-maskers screaming at some poor hourly employee, who is certainly not being paid enough to be berated just for asking someone to have the decency to cover their face during a pandemic. Masks, though, have become a partisan issue — a travesty in no small part thanks to President Trump, who has made a show out of refusing to wear one — and which is all the more tragic because mask-wearing is the most minor possible inconvenience with the biggest possible upside: saving lives.
Yet the dark side to American individualism is entitlement and exceptionalism — twin cancers that have metastasized during the pandemic. There’s a certain smug attitude that commonly exists and says, the rules shouldn’t apply to me, even when there isn’t a plague.
This includes a subset of people for whom the so-called advantages awarded by the ADA to disabled Americans are appealing. Some people go as far as to look specifically for workarounds, loopholes, or fraudulent ways to obtain these rights, like illegally buying or borrowing a handicap parking placard, or taking advantage of easily-attainable “emotional support animal” paperwork just so their dog can go into a restaurant. But as Rachel Carrington wrote in January for Rooted in Rights, “Our disabilities are not prizes we’ve earned that give us the right to better parking or more attention. We didn’t go to our doctors and beg for our disability status.” What’s more, such actions by a small subset of non-disabled Americans actively harm the disability community at large, sowing the perception that some people are “faking it” when it’s more likely they have an invisible disability.
What makes the mask situation unique, though, is that non-disabled Americans are now seeking to have an exception made for them on the grounds of a disability that … doesn’t even exist. For example, in a viral video shot over the weekend in a Trader Joe’s in North Hollywood, California, a customer who was not wearing a mask tells the people criticizing her that she has a “breathing problem” and that “my doctor would not let me wear masks.” But the woman has so far “declined to give any details about her medical condition,” and while she claimed to the press that she called a Trader Joe’s manager to tell him about her condition and was given the go-ahead to forgo a covering, staff at the store told Fox 6 that they never got the supposed call. While it may be true the woman has the medical condition she claims, people who can’t wear cloth masks are supposed to find a more breathable alternative protection, such as a plastic face shield, when they are out. Many businesses are also offering other solutions, like delivery or curbside pickup, to accommodate those who don’t have masks or who want to further limit possible exposure.
“The only people who should not be wearing masks in public are toddlers under the age of 2, people with extreme respiratory distress, and people who are unconscious,” ABC News explained, citing its chief medical correspondent, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, who added on Good Morning America: “In general, if your breathing condition is well enough to allow yelling or being outside without oxygen, you can wear a mask medically.”
Still, that hasn’t stopped some from purchasing the aforementioned “Face Mask Exempt Cards,” which take a variety of forms but generally claim: “I am exempt from any ordinance requiring face mask usage in public. Wearing a face mask poses a mental and/or physical risk to me.” The cards even reference the Department of Justice and the Americans with Disabilities Act, though both organizations have debunked the cards, noting they are not real or valid for use.
The worrying part, though, is that even as anti-maskers are co-opting the language of the ADA, the people using the excuses are actively imperiling the actual disability community. Millions of Americans with disabilities are facing uniquely difficult challenges during lockdown. Additionally, “people with a disability often have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19,” note two Australian health experts in The Conversation. “They may also be more at risk of contracting the virus if they have disability workers entering their home.” Other research cited by NPR found that “people with intellectual disabilities and autism who contract COVID-19 die at higher rates than the rest of the population.”
Typically, people living with a disability and the families of people living with a disability are hyper-aware of the threat of COVID-19. Shannon Des Roches Rosa writes for The Washington Post that her autistic son can’t wear a mask because “[h]is neurology makes him more sensitive than other people to touch and texture, and he cannot bear the feeling of having his nose and mouth covered by fabric.” She goes on to explain the exhaustive ways she and her family work to protect both her son and the people her son might come in contact with. Naturally, the rest of the population wearing masks and not making excuses would also help protect people like her son, who are among the few who truly can’t wear masks themselves.
Even in the best of times, America is a difficult country to live in if you don’t fit the traditional conception of “able-bodied.” It’s not just damaging for anti-maskers to portray their discomfort with wearing a mask as a “disability” or medical condition — it’s dangerous to the community they’re pretending to be a part of. If wearing a light piece of fabric over your face is so uncomfortable that you’re tempted to harm others to avoid it, then here’s another simple solution: just stay indoors.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week’s “Today’s best articles” newsletter here.