Abuse survivors, people of color face unique barriers in wearing masks

A popup store in D.C. | Samuel Corum/Getty Images

There is no criminal penalty for failing to wear a face mask in public spaces in Michigan, but businesses and venues can refuse people entrance without one, per Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mask order that went into effect late in April. 

State and federal health officials have stressed that face masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. At businesses like banks or grocery stores, everyone is expected to wear a mask, a standard set in several states during the pandemic. White House coronavirus task force coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx said in an interview last week that there’s scientific evidence that wearing a mask indoors reduces the spread of respiratory droplets that may contain the virus.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has even issued the #MIMaskChallenge to encourage the practice.

Last week, President Trump caused a stir by refusing to wear a mask during most of his tour of an Ypsilanti Ford plant, despite state and company rules. While much of the attention has been on conservatives arguing that they’re sacrificing civil liberties by wearing a mask, there are others who face barriers and are concerned a one-size-fits-all approach to masks doesn’t fit. 

Some abuse survivors, for instance, respond negatively to something covering their mouth. Some people of color are afraid someone might call the police on them for appearing “suspicious.” Some people medically cannot wear masks. 

There have been some incidents of conflict over masks nationwide and in Michigan.

One of the best-known examples was on May 1, when 43-year-old security guard Calvin James Munerlyn was shot and killed at the Flint Family Dollar where he was working after reportedly barring a woman and her daughter from entering the store without masks.

The next day, Rex Howard Gomell, 68, was caught on video wiping his nose on a store clerk’s shirt in a Holly, Mich., Dollar Tree after being told that all customers are required to wear masks.

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Dr. Peter Gulick, an infectious disease expert at the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the other people in these stores, whether they be customers or staff, were potentially in danger because of these actions. COVID-19 is uncharted territory, with steep consequences, he noted.

“Medically, I see what it does; dealing with viruses for 35 years including HIV, this one really really scares me,” said. “I can see what it’s done and how it does it, it’ll pick on anybody, young or old.”

As of Tuesday, there are 55,104 Michiganders who have tested positive for COVID-19 and 5,266 have died. Nationwide, there are more than 1.6 million confirmed cases and almost 99,000 deaths.

Whitmer has taken some heat for her stay-home order and mask rule. But at her April 24 media conference, she said executive orders are meant to save lives, not restrict them. She continued her consistent message of thanking Michiganders for staying home and social distancing as unemployment and the emotional toll increases.

“The thing about public health is when you do it well, you never know how many lives you’ve saved, but we do know that it’s worked and we’ve pushed the curve down,” Whitmer said. “That’s because all of you.”

Michigan is not the only state to institute a mask rule. Other states that have adopted some kind of rule include New York, Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

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There are exemptions to the mask rule, like for those who medically cannot wear one. They include people whose airflow is restricted from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. 

Gulick said he’s heard the pros and the cons of homemade masks as Michiganders are encouraged to leave medical-grade masks for those in the medical field due to shortages, but said he’d rather be safe than sorry.

Surgical masks weren’t developed to protect surgeons from getting infected by patients, Gulick said. They were supposed to stop surgeons from infecting patients when they cough or sneeze.

Gulick reiterated what national experts have been saying during the pandemic: “You might not know you have it.” Several studies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown that a large portion of individuals with COVID-19 don’t have symptoms. 

As a result, the CDC suggests people use homemade masks, not only because it could limit the spread from people who are infected, but also as a barrier for those looking to protect themselves from becoming infected.

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Survivors dealing with past trauma 

Some survivors of domestic and sexual violence face feelings of anxiety associated with covering their mouths due to trauma. Wearing masks poses unique challenges for them.

Erin Roberts, senior program director at the Okemos-based Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, said survivors experience many different things. What works for one person in recovery might not work for another. She encourages Michigan residents to use the 24-hour sexual assault hotline to speak to an advocate about what might work for them, 855-VOICES4.

“Every different sense that we have is tied to memories, tied to experiences, trauma is like a megaphone on those,” Roberts said.

Whether it’s the feeling of something covering your mouth or the smell or the texture of a material, those feelings can amplify the trauma of a memory, Roberts said. Though face coverings are essential for the safety of survivors and the people they come in contact with, it’s important to ask how face coverings can be made bearable for survivors.

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“People don’t ask the individual-level questions. They’re not looking through intersectional lenses and survivor centered perspectives, at the grocery store,” Roberts said. “The creative piece of that is how do we adjust face coverings to meet survivors and their needs.” 

Survivors can find local programs and resources here.

Challenges for people of color

Face masks in places like grocery stores is a foreign concept in the United States, where some states have had bans on masks in the past. Georgia has recently suspended its mask ban targeting the Ku Klux Klan to accommodate the fight against COVID-19.

Michigan has a version of a mask ban which says: “A person who intentionally conceals his or her identity by wearing a mask or other device covering his or her face for the purpose of facilitating the commission of a crime is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 93 days or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both.”

Muslim women in Michigan have historically run into prejudice and discrimination when covering their heads and faces. 

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Even now that face masks have become the new normal, people of color can face unique barriers. Asian Americans already have encountered racism for months over the disease originating in Wuhan, China, the Advance previously reported.

People of color can be subject to swatting, a criminal harassment tactic of calling the police on someone. They have been subject to police calls just for having barbecues or walking in predominantly white neighborhoods.

Though not over a mask, a Monday incident involving Amy Cooper, a New York white woman, went viral after a video showed her calling the police on a man who told her her dog is not allowed off its leash in a section of Central Park. She is shown changing her voice to sound like she’s in danger while talking to police, saying there’s “an African American man threatening my life.” 

Some civil rights advocates are concerned that people of color will face more harassment by wearing masks, as other citizens will consider them “threatening.” 

Detroit Urban League President and CEO N. Charles Anderson said despite the anxieties people of color may have about wearing face masks, it is important to follow the law.

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“The African-American community has been hit very hard in regards to being affected and impacted by the coronavirus,” Anderson said. “We should be the first ones to try to be protected.”

State data shows that African American populations are impacted by COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate than their white counterparts, composing 31% of cases and 40% of deaths. Blacks are roughly 14% of the state population. 

Anderson noted it’s a strange idea that he now can walk into a bank with a mask “considering the behaviors of people in our society.” But he said the Urban League is encouraging people to follow the law because some people’s prejudices won’t be stopped even if Black people forgo masks.

“Either way, there could be an issue for me not wearing one, and there could be an issue for me wearing one.” Anderson said.