Why Mayor Eric Adams Told New York City Shoppers To Lower Face Masks Despite Covid-19
Looks like face mask wearing is going to get even more complicated in New York City (NYC). The NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) website still says, “We strongly recommend everyone to wear masks in all indoor public settings to reduce the spread of these viruses,” based presumably on a number of studies that have shown that face mask use may reduce the transmission of the Covid-19 coronavirus. Yet, on a 1010 WINS radio interview on Monday, NYC Mayor Eric Adams didn’t exactly echo the Health Department’s recommendations. Instead, he urged, “We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops, do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask.” He continued with, “And then once they’re inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so.”
Wait, why was Adams telling people to take off their face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic? Well, during another interview on Monday, a television one with PIX 11, he explained further, “Let’s be clear, some of these characters going into stores that are wearing their mask, they’re not doing it because they’re afraid of the pandemic, they’re doing it because they’re afraid of the police.” He added, “We need to stop allowing them to exploit the safety of the pandemic by wearing masks, committing crimes.”
By “some of these characters,” Adams may have been referring to a “hazmat suit-wearing gunman who is wanted in four robberies, one of which turned deadly,” as the following tweet from PIX 11 News indicated:
Adams didn’t offer any statistics on exactly how many people have actually “exploited” the use face masks during the pandemic to commit crimes, though. It would be helpful to know whether he was referring to just a few anecdotal reports here and there versus a consistent problem. After all, Matt Stopera once listed for BuzzFeed “The 20 Most Insane Crimes Involving Bananas,” but no one has been calling for shoppers to leave their bananas outside stores. Plus, where’s the evidence that getting someone to lower his or her face mask will prevent that person from committing a crime? How many people about to commit crimes will actually think, “Hmm, now that I have to lower my face mask, maybe I just won’t commit any crimes?”
At the same time, could Adams’s “clear call” make things even less clear when it comes to Covid-19 precautions? Although his call to shops wasn’t a legally-binding requirement, a number of people on social media have expressed concerns that his statements might undermine messaging from the NYC DOHMH and other public health authorities. For example, Ellie Murray, ScD, an Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, tweeted that “Covid-19 has caused SO much more illness, death, suffering, and economic disruption than armed robbery. Unless maybe you also count all the many ways ‘armed robbery’ has been used as a political cover for the *police & government* to harm people.” And Robyn Ruth (@Robyn_TRuth) posted on Twitter, “@NYCMayor Medically vulnerable people often wear a fit-tested N95 respirator. (It’s sealed for a reason) Forcing immunocompromised people to remove masks violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Meanwhile, Jessica Wildfire tweeted, “Someone who wears a mask is the least likely to a commit crime. In case you still don’t know, wearing a mask means we actually care what happens to people, even ones we don’t know,” as you can see here:
It used to be that wearing face masks was viewed as a sign that you actually care about other people. After all, wearing a face mask can not only protect you but also prevent your from spreading the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) to others. This has been supported by a range of sceintific studies as I have covered before and recently for Forbes. Yet, once some political and business leaders began viewing face mask wearing as a sign that things had not yet returned to normal, they started politicizing the use of face masks. They started equating face masks with restrictions of freedom, which, in turn, has resulted in the stigmatization of and even open hostility towards many face mask wearers. This was sort of like stigmatizing the person who does not pee in the swimming pool by saying, “Hey look at you. Trying to hold in your urine and not treat the pool like a toilet bowl like everyone. Taking away our freedom to pee on or in anything we want.”
To be fair, Adams has not opposed the use of face masks. However, the concern is that, regardless of his intentions, Adams’s wording on the radio and TV shows may inadvertently send the wrong messages. It could be seen as blaming face masks for crime. Of all the potential crime prevention measures out there, telling people to lower their face masks is probably not that high on the list. There seems to be a whole lot more things that should be done first such as further shoring up police protection, modifying the environment to make crime less likely such as adding more lighting, and tackling the things that are actually leading to crime in the first place.
Plus, while the NYC DOHMH has strongly recommended the wearing of “masks in all indoor public settings,” Adams’s wording during the 1010 WINS radio interview was quite different. Again, he said, “Once they’re inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so.” Saying “if they so desire to do so” could in some people’s minds make face masks sound more like a Justin Bieber T-shirt, low riding jeans, or a nose ring. It could make it sound like an accessory that some people simply choose to wear rather than a public health intervention that becomes more effective, the more people do it. And whether intended or not intended, it’s not a great idea to lower the use of face masks to that degree as long as the Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over.