Column: How could a race for U.S. president come down to a referendum on masks?

Ken Dugan wears a mask while voting at the San Marcos Civic Center
Ken Dugan wears a mask while voting at the San Marcos Civic Center with his 5-month-old son, Jett, riding in a carrier on his chest.
(Paul Sisson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

We were walking toward each other on a narrow sidewalk in Boyle Heights on election eve, when the young woman stopped, stepped out of the way, and waited for me to pass.

Well that was awfully polite of her, I thought. She must be showing deference to a gray-bearded pensioner on his way to a medical appointment.

Then I realized it was something else. She was masked, and I’d gotten out of my car with mask in hand, but forgot to put it on. She stepped away because she was steering clear of me and playing it safe, which puts her squarely on one side of the national divide.


Consider the mask: a simply constructed, cheap piece of fabric with ear loops.

Who could have dreamed it would play a role in the outcome of a presidential election?

“You have to wear a mask here or they don’t let you in,” said Irma, a medical assistant who drew my blood, ran an EKG test and checked my blood pressure at USC Keck Medical Center.

Lately I’ve been taking care of long-delayed medical visits, trying to get my health in check before hospitals and clinics are overwhelmed, as some predict they will be, by surging cases of COVID-19.

Irma told me she requires her two kids to wear masks outdoors and said it bothers her that some people defiantly resist face coverings, even if it means front-line medical workers like her are at greater risk because of it.

“It’s insane,” said Irma. “The whole world seems crazy right now.”

The nurse who popped in to review my charts didn’t hesitate when I asked her why so many people have resisted wearing masks.

“Knowledge deficit,” said Sherry, an RN, and she said it matter-of-factly.

To her, the benefits of masks are clear, and one piece of evidence that people haven’t gotten that message is that so many have attended large gatherings without masks — including rallies for President Trump — and later gotten sick or died. Trump, who hasn’t worn a mask even after turning the White House into a super-spreader hot spot and being hospitalized with COVID-19, has referred to public health experts as idiots, and said he might soon give Dr. Anthony Fauci the ax.

“I’m pretty sure Dr. Fauci has more knowledge about the virus than the president,” said Sherry.

No doubt, but as Irma put it, the world has gone mad, or at least the United States has. We’ve gone from superpower to backwater, with medical advice dismissed and scientific research mocked, and that’s just for starters.

We teach our youngsters not to call people names, not to mock, not to be selfish and not to lie. And then we elect a president who not only models all of those things and makes bigots feel pretty good about themselves, but is admired by roughly half the nation’s voters because of it. Are we idiotic enough to elect him again? As I write on Tuesday, that’s not clear, and it may not be by the time you’re reading this, either.

I never thought I’d see an electorate so sharply divided, or a president so militantly provocative, that we’d be boarding up commercial districts from California to Washington, D.C. on election eve. Trump promised a higher and better wall four years ago and he’s finally delivered; we just didn’t know it would be built around the White House.

The division exists even in solidly blue California. Huntington Beach became one of the nation’s first capitals of resistance to masks and of demands to throw open the doors of commerce, even as bodies piled up.

And in Redding, the resistance to sound medical advice endures, led by the Bethel Church, whose pastors are fans of Trump. But as my colleagues Hailey Branson-Potts and Anita Chabria reported, the church was such a virus spreader, businesses in town were forced to scale back operations to stem the surge of new infections.

“In recent weeks,” said the story, “more than 300 COVID-19 cases have been reported by the church and its Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (or BSSM), an unaccredited school focused on prophecy and miracles. It has been the largest cluster of cases in Shasta County.”

Shasta officials blamed the surge on “crowded living conditions for students and leadership publicly questioning the effectiveness of masks.”

If you can’t see that not wearing masks in the middle of a deadly pandemic could get someone sick or even killed, it’s possible that prophecy might not be your school’s strong suit.

I buy my masks in boxes of 50, and they run about three for a dollar. I know they don’t offer full protection for me or anyone I come close to, but they might help protect others, including healthcare workers whose lives are on the line, and it’s a small price to pay and no more than a minor inconvenience to wear them. And of course I also social distance and avoid gatherings.

It’s alarming to me that the race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was such a cliffhanger right up to the end, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as close if Trump had been big enough to quit the tough-guy act for a while and behave like any competent leader and decent grownup would have.

All he had to do was say that the virus was too serious to be taken lightly, and that if we acted collectively to distance ourselves and wear masks, we’d likely be able to accelerate a smartly planned, phased reopening of schools and businesses. So much suffering could have been avoided, and the economy wouldn’t have taken such a beating. And Trump would likely have sealed his victory.

If Trump loses, his bluster and stubbornness will finally have done him in. I wonder if he’ll regret not showing a little humility. But that would probably take a Bethel Church miracle.

If he wins, God help us.