If you heard a loud “woosh”ing noise around lunchtime Friday, it might have been the sound of AMC executives flicking their phones in unison, reading through angry tweets and emails about their failed attempt to escape the news cycle.
With 450 locations set to reopen on July 15, AMC president and CEO Adam Aron said in an interview Thursday that audiences wouldn’t be required to mask up to slow the spread of COVID-19 — because “we did not want to be drawn into a political controversy.”
By attempting to avoid “political controversy,” of course, Aron had stepped right into one. Anger ensued. Less than 24 hours after the interview was published, he announced Friday that the theater chain would require masks after all.
The quick change of heart, AMC said, reflected “our commitment to the safety and health of our guests.”
But why would health and safety be controversial in the first place? A good question!
Aron had fallen into a trap that the American right has laid over and over: “Politicize” something you don’t like and before long, risk-averse businesses, “both-sides” reporters, and casual news consumers will avoid it like, well, the plague.
While health officials initially downplayed masks’ importance, the science has been clear for a while: They prevent COVID-19’s spread, especially from virus-carriers who don’t show symptoms.
But as scientists were making that clear, the right was working from a familiar playbook.
“They’ll say this whole mask thing is settled science, just like they do with climate change,” Fox News’ Laura Ingraham said in late April, unintentionally making a good point.
The climate change comparison is apt. Anti-maskers spewing germs at the grocery store are, in a way, following in the footsteps of those who turned their trucks into “coal rollers” to show their contempt for the Obama administration’s pollution regulations. The black smoke they emitted, as Vocativ put it at the time, was “pollution porn for dudes with pick-up trucks.” “Settled science” be damned.
And, just as with climate change, monologues like Ingraham’s shifted the ball ever-so-slightly to the right: The epidemiologists may say they know what they’re doing, the message went, but not everyone agrees!
A day before Ingraham’s rant, Vice President Mike Pence had toured the Mayo Clinic without a mask — “coal rolling” a plasma donor, as it were. (He later said he should have masked up.)
Within a couple days of the episode, the “debate” was solidified in a both-sides-y Politico profile, “Wearing a mask is for smug liberals. Refusing to is for reckless Republicans.”
(In its 17th paragraph, the article noted that, in crowded settings, “a mask reduces the ability of an asymptomatic infected person to spread the virus.”)
NPR followed in a similar vein at the end of the month: “The Battle Between The Masked And The Masked-Nots Unveils Political Rifts,” read their story.
This marks a victory: Once the mask “debate” gained traction beyond Laura Ingraham Fox News bubble, it was hard to stop.
Within six weeks of that monologue, the world’s most popular podcast host, Joe Rogan, had heard the news. Interviewing the comedian Bill Burr, Rogan said it was “creepy” that the Los Angeles mayor had the power to require masks of the city’s populace. And beyond that, Rogan opined, “masks are for bitches.”
He’s hardly alone. As Gallup noted in mid-April, Trump refused to wear a mask despite his own administration’s recommendations — “which his political base may have taken as an indication that they didn’t need to do so either.”
The surgeon general, now a vocal proponent of masks despite his early calls to reserve medical-grade ones for health workers, has tried to heal the divide.
But in an attempt at spreading the word recently, he recalled yet another bogus “debate.”
Sure, Adams wrote in a tweet Sunday, some people feel that the masks millions of their countrymen wear to battle COVID-19 “infringe on their freedom.” But, he said, “Like vaccines, the more who participate, the greater the impact.”
And just like vaccines, a small but vocal minority has no interest in expert opinion on COVID-19.
Anti-vaccine activist Ginger Taylor is one of them. “Slavery is freedom, got it,” she responded.