Customers wait in line outside of T.J. Maxx in Augusta on Wednesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Bob Cargill had barely exited his vehicle when he looped the elastic around his ears and fitted the cloth mask over his mouth and nose.

“I always wear it,” the 69-year-old from South China said before entering the Walmart Supercenter in Augusta on Wednesday. “I don’t understand people who don’t.”

In the same shopping plaza, Barbara Jablon, 70, of Augusta was maskless and proud coming out of T.J. Maxx.

“I won’t wear one,” she said. “I’ve only worn one once, and that was to get my hair cut. They wouldn’t let me in otherwise.”

There is growing scientific consensus that wearing face coverings in public, coupled with other measures such as physical distancing and hand washing, dramatically reduces the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

But that has not led to universal compliance. The percentage of people wearing masks in public appears to vary widely from place to place. At the same time, mask wearing is increasingly seen as a partisan issue. Some cities and states have made masks mandatory in public, as California did last week, while others, such as Florida and Texas, have avoided mandates even as their COVID-19 caseloads have steadily risen since their economies reopened.

Maine, too, requires people to wear masks in public, but many retailers are not enforcing it or turning maskless people away.

Over three days last week, the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram visited several big stores, including Hannaford and Shaw’s in Brunswick, Hannaford and Target in Topsham, and Walmart and T.J. Maxx in Augusta, among others. That small, unscientific sample revealed about 75 percent compliance, and no store turned away customers for not wearing masks.

Bob Cargill puts on his mask before heading into Walmart in Augusta. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Curtis Picard, president of the Retail Association of Maine, said his organization’s members agree with the mask mandate, but enforcement is another issue.

“It really puts retailers in a difficult position,” he said. “We’re heard stories of customers getting belligerent about being asked to wear a mask and even about customers spitting on employees.”

Instead, Picard said, retailers try to shape behavior through signage and hope for the best.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, last week shared three studies on the effectiveness of mask-wearing. One of the them, from the National Academy of Sciences, examined trends in Italy and New York City – two epicenters of transmission – and concluded that mandated face coverings alone reduced the number of infections between April and May by tens of thousands of cases.

With the possible exceptions of gravity and evolution, science is never settled, Shah said in an interview.

“But what we can say for sure is, there is an increasing volume of different types of scientific research … that all point in the same direction,” he said.

He plans to keep talking about the value of masks.

“I do not believe in hectoring, in telling people what to do,” he said. “I share the reasons why things are important. When it comes to masking, I talk about why I do.”

Shah has five reasons: It’s scientifically demonstrated to make a difference. It’s a sign of respect. It’s an appeal to a sense of community. It’s a sign of humility. And it’s kind.

An employee dons a mask as he lets customers know when they can go inside T.J. Maxx in Augusta. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

EVOLVING CONSENSUS

When the pandemic first swept the country, masks weren’t recommended.

That changed when the scientific community realized how much the coronavirus was being spread largely by asymptomatic, or presymptomatic, individuals. People with COVID-19 are most infectious on the first day they develop symptoms, and often the day before.

“That’s completely different from influenza, where you’re most infectious when your symptoms are the worst,” Shah said. “So we didn’t change our minds (on masks). We just learned more.”

Shah acknowledged that shift likely “generated the perception that the scientific community doesn’t know what it’s doing.” But more and more studies have confirmed the efficacy of masks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending masks in public settings in early April. The World Health Organization was a little slower to make that recommendation, but now it too strongly suggests that everyone wear a mask in places where they cannot socially distance. That conclusion came after a review published June in the journal Lancet, funded by the WHO, that examined 172 observational studies and concluded wearing masks reduces the risk of infection.

The science is simple: If someone wearing a mask coughs or sneezes, or if droplets leave their mouth when they talk, the mask acts as a barrier to catch those particles from traveling far. The covering does not stop droplets from entering, though, which is why the thought is: My mask protects you, your mask protects me.

Many countries have made mask-wearing in public mandatory and have seen infections go down. But in the United States, masks have become something of a fault line, especially among conservatives. President Trump and others in his administration routinely eschew wearing masks publicly, and that is seen as a signal to his supporters that they don’t need to wear them either.

But his own surgeon general, Dr. Jerome Adams, last week appealed to the public and even seized on the very language often used by non-mask wearers.

“Some feel face coverings infringe on their freedom of choice – but if more wear them, we’ll have MORE freedom to go out.” Adams wrote on Twitter.

NO MASK, NO SERVICE

For decades, most retailers have had a standard “no shoes, no shirt, no service” policy. Few people would think of going into a store without a shirt on nowadays. Is applying that to mask-wearing any different, at least in the middle of a pandemic?

Dr. James Jarvis with Northern Light Health said last week that as he’s been out in public recently, he’s noticed many people not wearing masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines.

“Some of that I’m sure is that sense of security from the fact that our numbers have been low in the state and in the last few days those numbers have declined, which is wonderful news,” he said. “But study after study has shown that the precautions we took … actually not only stemmed the spread of this disease but saved lives.”

Compliance will never be 100 percent, but more industries have begun implementing requirements that could make it harder for people to ignore.

Many businesses have been requiring employees to wear masks for months. The airline industry announced last week that it’s considering banning passengers who refuse to wear masks, and American Airlines on Thursday banned a conservative activist from its flights until the mask order is lifted. AMC Theatres, one of the country’s largest chains of movie theaters, announced last week that it plans to resume operations July 15 and said masks would not be required. After a blowback, the company reversed course and said masks will be required.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week asked all committee chairs to require masks at all hearings and authorized the sergeant at arms to bar anyone who refuses to cover their face. In Maine the state’s Legislative Council adopted a new policy requiring everyone to wear face coverings during legislative committee meetings.

A news report out of Florida last week offered a cautionary tale. Sixteen friends who went to an Irish pub in Jacksonville all tested positive for COVID-19 days later. Erika Crisp, one of the friends, told a local TV news station that she regretted the decision.

“I think we were careless and we went out into a public place when we should not have. And we were not wearing masks. I think we had a whole ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ mentality,” she said.

Barbara Jablon of Augusta, outside T.J. Maxx in Augusta on Wednesday, said she has worn a mask only once, when she got a haircut. “There is no virus,” she said. “It’s gone.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

SCANT ENFORCEMENT

Many stores in Maine have posted signs saying face coverings are required, but employees stop short of enforcing the mandate. Some customers have taken to social media to press local companies. Hannaford, the Scarborough-based chain of grocery stores, has fielded several complaints over the past couple of weeks from people voicing concerns about a lack of mask-wearing by customers.

A Hannaford spokesman confirmed that it is not asking employees to enforce the policy. “We are asking that our customers wear face coverings while shopping in our stores, unless they’re medically unable to do so,” said Eric Blom.

Teresa Edington, a spokeswoman for Shaw’s, did not directly address a question about enforcement. “We urge our customers to adhere to the CDC’s guidelines and any state and local mandates for masks, social distancing, and other safety procedures when they shop at our stores,” she said.

Some stores, though, are enforcing the rules.

Erin Lynch, director of operations for Rosemont Market, which operates six stores in Greater Portland, said all locations are strictly enforcing the mask policy.

“If there are customers who are not comfortable wearing a mask, we still have curbside service, so employees are instructed to offer those services. We also have disposable masks for customers,” she said, adding that customers have been appreciative.

John Crane, general manager of the Portland Food Co-op, said his store has been enforcing the mask mandate.

“Since the pandemic started back in March, we have kept a staff member at the entrance explaining all our rules and regulations and obviously we feel masks are most important,” he said. “If people don’t have them, we actually purchased many disposable masks we can offer them.

“Some people put up an argument and are definitely aggravated, but we just tell them this is our policy. I think customers like knowing we’re taking an extra level of precaution.”

Picard, with the retail association, said avoiding confrontation is the main reason for not enforcing, but another consideration is that the governor’s order allows exemptions for people who have a medical condition that inhibits their breathing. Patrons are not required to provide proof of any condition and employees are not allowed to ask.

“It’s pretty clear it’s the proper thing to do, and I think it’s getting better,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, there seems to be better compliance from Augusta south than Augusta north.”

On Tuesday morning in Bangor, outside the T.J. Maxx there, a television reporter shared photos on social media of the line of customers waiting to get in. No one appeared to be wearing a mask.

Cargill, the Walmart shopper from South China, said he’s been discouraged by how infrequent mask-wearing seems to be.

“It seems like when I’ve been out, it’s about half and half,” he said. “That doesn’t feel like enough.”

Jablon, the maskless Augusta shopper, said she’s convinced wearing a mask does more harm than good.

“And there’s no reason to,” she said. “There is no virus. It’s gone.”

Asked to explain, Jablon said she doesn’t believe the pandemic is a problem anymore and whatever is left of the virus will be killed off by the sun, even though there is no evidence of that.

Jess Farnham of Pittston also exited the TJ Maxx location in Augusta without a mask Wednesday. She said she sometimes wears one when she’s in public but not always. She doesn’t think she’s being unsafe by not wearing a mask.

“People are rude if you don’t, though,” she said, recounting an interaction with another customer who told her to back away.

Jess Farnham of Pittston outside T.J. Maxx in Augusta on Wednesday. Regarding restrictive measures brought on by the coronavirus she said, “I’m over it, personally.” Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Farnham said when it comes to the restrictive measures brought on by the coronavirus, “I’m over it, personally.”

That attitude persists even though states that opened up before Maine are starting to see record numbers of new coronavirus cases. Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott has prohibited any mask restrictions, and Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis also has resisted a mandate, are prime examples. Both state leaders are Republicans.

Shah said mask-wearing shouldn’t be a political issue and that he has been thinking about how to help shape public behavior. He said he’s looking for a “Magic Johnson moment,” referring to the former NBA star’s decision to disclose that he was HIV-positive in the early 1990s, which did more for HIV/AIDS awareness than anything else had.

“That was one man who gave one speech,” he said. “What can we do with respect to face-coverings where a collective light bulb goes off?”

Shah said a universally adored Maine celebrity, or several, participating in a public ad campaign is something he’s considered, but maybe lesser-known names would be more powerful.

Sarah McQuade, 42, of Kittery has barely left her house in more than 100 days. McQuade has lupus, an autoimmune disorder that puts her at high risk if she contracts the coronavirus and is being understandably cautious.

“If I drove around and everyone was wearing a mask, I would feel pretty good. Maybe I could go to the grocery store,” she said. “But it doesn’t seem that way at all. Half of the people I see are unmasked. If everyone wore a mask, we could have this under control in a month. It’s such a simple thing to do.”

McQuade understands that some people will never be convinced and will shun masks purely for ideological reasons.

“Maybe those people aren’t gettable,” she said. “But I think there are people who can be convinced if they saw that it works. So we should keep talking about that.”


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