America Unmasked 

How a primary weapon against COVID became a casualty of the culture war

By: - July 17, 2020 6:27 am
mask down

Updated federal recommendations marked a sharp shift from the agency’s guidance in May that people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 do not need to wear a mask in most situations, indoors and outdoors.(Nevada Current file photo)

“There’s no law,” Las Vegas visitor Genevieve Peters proclaims in the middle of the Wynn Las Vegas casino as she records video of security guards attempting to usher the woman and her friends out of the property for not wearing masks. “It’s illegal and it’s unconstitutional.  But yet we are getting walked out by staff.”  

“Let’s go back to the Trump,” says a friend.  

“What you guys are doing is illegal and unconstitutional,” Peters says as she leads security on a fifteen-minute long odyssey through the casino that includes a trip to the ladies’ restroom. “You’re making us do a mask which is unhealthy for me. It’s against HIPAA and any kind of health regulations and you’re forcing me to be unhealthy. So I’ve got to have proof by my attorney.”  

While most casino guests graciously or grudgingly comply with Gov. Steve Sisolak’s mandate to wear masks in public, a few, like Peters, are intent on turning noncompliance into a deadly sport. 

“I say we take a little walk. Let’s turn around. Let’s turn around,” she conspires with her companion as they near an exit. “Let’s see what they do.”  

“I’m a Vegas worker.  Trying to make your day brighter,” says a Facebook commenter. “Your selfishness is mind blowing.” 

“Please arrest them,” says another.    

“Shut up snowflake,” reads a reply. 

Lack of enforcement?

On the very rare occasion in which a guest refuses to wear a face covering, we request that they leave the resort,” says Wynn Las Vegas spokesman Michael Weaver.  

Hotel security staff, who received no assistance from state gaming agents or Las Vegas Metropolitan Police in escorting Peters off the property, appear to be shouldering the burden alone. 

“The Nevada Gaming Control Board has no comment,” the board’s senior research analyst Michael Lawton said when asked what regulators are doing to assist with enforcement. 

Last week the state’s Occupation Safety and Health Administration reported 66 percent compliance with mask regulations among Southern Nevada businesses.

The Red Zone 

How did eschewing masks become a misguided symbol of liberty?

America, diverse as it may be, is known globally for rallying around a cause, spurred on by the rhetoric of even marginally capable leaders.  

President Donald Trump has opted for a strategy of denial, in hopes the virus “will miraculously fade away” in time for the electorate to take notice before November.  

It’s a plan that has left Americans ill-advised, uninformed, and scrambling to pick up the slack by becoming health advisors to their own families.

Nevada is in the red zone for cases, indicating more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week, and the red zone for test positivity, indicating a rate above 10%,” says a report prepared for the White House Task Force but not publicized, according to Public Integrity, which obtained it.  

“Nevada has seen stability in new cases and a decrease in testing positivity over the past week,” the report says. “Las Vegas continues to have (a) concerning rise in cases.”

The report says Nevada had 173 new cases per 100,000 population in the past week.  The national average was 119. 

Among the report’s recommendations for Nevada: Ensure enforcement of the masking requirements in business establishments.

Assistant UNLV Professor of Public Health Brian Labus, a member of Gov. Sisolak’s Medical Advisory Team, says he doesn’t know “why mask usage became so political and why people see the issue of personal freedom as more important than that of public health. I can say that it has made controlling this outbreak much more difficult. Not only do I have to fight a virus – I have to fight the public, too.”

Failure to communicate 

From a public relations perspective, the national effort to mask up has suffered from mixed messaging and atrocious branding via a spokesperson-in-chief who largely refuses to use the product and mocks his political opponent and reporters for doing so. 

Additionally, President Trump’s insistence on referring to COVID-19 as a “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” is in contrast to the pride in “mask culture” that developed in Asia during the 2003 SARS outbreak.

But is racism partially responsible for the unwillingness of so many Americans to don a mask? 

“I think science denial, misplaced partisanship, and misplaced individualism are sufficient explanations,” says Michael Kagan, a professor at Boyd School of Law and director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic. “If there’s a racial element, I think it’s more about white privilege. Certain people may not be used to the idea that rules apply to them. They may be more used to rules restricting other people.”

In the early stages of the pandemic, federal and local health officials initially downplayed the efficacy of masks and attempted to steer the public away in a clumsy effort to preserve the rare commodity for health and other frontline workers. 

“We have to admit it, that that mixed message in the beginning, even though it was well-meant to allow masks to be available for health workers, that was detrimental in getting the message across. No doubt about it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said in an interview on National Public Radio earlier this month.   

Nevada’s messaging has been equally mixed. 

  • Hotels reopened on June 4 with no requirement that guests wear masks.  
  • On June 11, Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan said she’d like to see masks worn in casinos.  
  • On June 17, the Board mandated guests at table games wear masks.  
  • Finally, on June 26, with cases spiking like clockwork three weeks after Phase 2 of the reopening began, Sisolak mandated masks for all casino guests.  The seven-day moving positivity rate increased from 2.9 to 15 percent in that three-week span.  

“If the president had led by example, worn a mask, and insisted that each governor pass a mask mandate at the state level back in April, we might not be in the position we are in now,” says Labus.

‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…’

Anti-maskers are flexing their militance everywhere from the grocery store to town halls.  

Peters, the woman who harangued the security staff at Wynn Las Vegas, was kicked out of a Trader Joe’s in Los Angeles for refusing to wear a mask. 

On Wednesday, unmasked protesters jammed a county commission meeting in Utah where residents were slated to discuss masks in schools. The meeting was canceled.  

In Florida, a grilled cheese restaurant was briefly transformed into a bastion against government overreach when anti-maskers took a stand against face coverings.   

In Clark County, a candidate for School Board is blaming masks for contributing to an increase in crime by obscuring faces on surveillance photos.

No national mandate

On Thursday, Arkansas and Colorado joined states that are mandating masks while Georgia’s governor suspended all local government mask mandates. 

More than half the states — 26 — have now mandated masks be worn in public, according to Reuters.  

Retailers such as Walmart and Target announced nationwide mask mandates in their stores, while Home Depot is bucking a mask mandate in Washington.  

“I believe this president has made a terrible mistake,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday on CNN of Trump’s refusal to order a national mask mandate.

Cuomo announced Thursday he’s helping to launch a series of public service announcements to encourage the use of masks nationwide.  

 “If the federal government won’t do it, I’ll do everything I can to get that message across the country,” he said.

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana has four adult children, two grandsons, three dogs, three cats and a cockatoo named Casper.