Corey Friedman

Not since the tomato-red “Make America Great Again” hat has a clothing accessory carried this much political baggage.

Face masks became a flashpoint in the culture wars following President Donald Trump’s May 26 exchange with Reuters reporter Jeff Mason.

Trump said Mason’s mask muffled one of his questions during a Rose Garden news conference. When Mason opted to speak louder instead of lowering the face mask, Trump said to the journalist, “Oh, OK, because you want to be politically correct.”

Presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden said Trump was being “an absolute fool” for refusing to wear a face mask and seeming to chide those who take the public health precaution.

In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending that Americans cover their noses and mouths with medical-style masks or makeshift face coverings like bandanas to stop the novel coronavirus from spreading. The cloth barriers prevent small droplets of moisture in exhaled breath from becoming airborne.

Some people vigilantly donned a mask each day while others shrugged off the guidance. Wearers and nonwearers coexisted without quarrel. Medical masks were in short supply, and lack of access was the most reasonable assumption for noncompliance.

The worm started to turn when some big-box stores began requiring customers to wear masks. Costco saw backlash and boycott threats on social media over its face-mask policy. Some of the discount club’s members said the rule violated their sense of personal freedom.

That’s a curious claim considering the chain’s practice of checking customers’ receipts against their purchases at the exit is far more intrusive. Yet the complaints continue.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam is requiring everyone 10 and older to wear face masks inside all establishments and in some outdoor settings. The executive order is raising eyebrows even though violators won’t face criminal penalties. A statement from Republican state senators decried Northam’s “incredible and stifling burdens” on the public.

For progressives, face masks are shorthand for social consciousness, the kind of lifestyle accessory that pairs well with a Toyota Prius. Masks carry the scientists’ seal of approval and send the message that wearers are making every effort to keep others around them safe. Look for the face-mask selfie to become the new fad in virtue signaling.

For conservatives and libertarians, the masks are muzzles. They represent nanny-state incursions on personal choice. The cloth rectangles remind them of hospitals and illness and infirmity, not courage and vigor and vitality. Folks on the right may grudgingly wear a face mask at the doctor’s office, but on social media and in retail businesses, they’ll go bare-chinned to make a statement.

It isn’t precisely a left-right dichotomy, however. Mask preference seems to boil down to a divergence between collectivists who prize public health above personal comfort and individualists who see a citizen’s rights as a prerequisite to society’s rules.

Tussles between Trump and Biden, and between Democratic governors and Republican state legislators, are turning a social schism into a political divide. These common-sense, centrist suggestions could help both sides declare a truce:

» Trust the science: A review of 19 randomized, controlled trials published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies shows that face masks are effective in preventing coronavirus spread. While makeshift face coverings offer less protection than medical masks, something’s better than nothing. Anti-maskers, the data doesn’t lie.

» Carrots, not sticks: Issue guidelines rather than orders or proclamations. Government should seek voluntary compliance. Businesses can incentivize participation by offering discounts or prize drawings to consumers who wear face masks. Rewarding socially positive behavior produces more of it.

» Lead by example: Many politicians are photographed preaching face-mask use while they aren’t wearing one themselves. Hypocrisy will only swell the skeptics’ ranks. If shoppers and diners should be wearing masks, so should their elected public servants.

» No mask-shaming: Resist the urge to lambast the loudmouth walking around the mall without a mask or make fun of the germophobe wearing one in his own bedroom. Recognize that everyone is free to decide for themselves. You’re in charge of exactly one face: your own.

Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter: @coreywrites. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.