As masks become a new political weapon, Silicon Valley is mostly supportive
Customers observe social distancing and wear face masks while wait in front of Bicycle Express. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

On a recent sunny, 80-degree afternoon, downtown San Jose started to regain its foot traffic.

Small businesses, restaurants and coffee shops settled into new routines after months of shutdown. Their patrons, nevertheless, are getting used to a new summer accessory: A face mask.

“It’s necessary,” said resident Rylee Dietz with a bandana over her face while waiting on a coffee order. “I’m hot, I’m sweaty, I hate wearing it, but I’m going to wear a mask no matter what.”

Though scientists and public health officials recommend wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the issue has escalated into a political debate across the nation.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly downplayed the importance of masks and refused to wear one for months until last week. Orange County’s top health official resigned amid harassment and death threats for issuing a face mask requirement in early June, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In San Jose, a number of residents pushed back against wearing masks before the City Council’s vote in May to make face coverings mandatory, citing constitutional rights, health issues related to oxygen deficiency, stress and discomfort, among other concerns.

“I have complied with the recommendation to wear a mask while patronizing businesses and within 90 seconds, I am lightheaded and become nauseous due to the lack of oxygen or fresh air,” resident Annie Colbeck wrote to the City Council. “This is not a healthy practice for any of your San Jose residents or essential workers outside of health care.”

Local artist Jean Skamra was not mincing words in her opposing message: “Since when has San Jose forced a dress code policy on (its) citizens?” she wrote. “This is tyranny. This is an outrage! … There is NO PROOF that these masks work. Please VOTE NO or we may end up losing our great city.”

Diners sit outside at Zazil in San Jose’s Santana Row following county orders that restaurants could serve food outdoors. Some roads have been closed to traffic to offer retailers more outdoor space. Photo courtesy of Federal Realty Investment Trust.

The resistance to wearing masks could stem from the high levels of distrust in the government, news media and science, according to longtime political scientist Terry Christensen.

“This is a high point of distrust in the government and the media that we haven’t seen before,” Christensen said. “People don’t believe, or trust, in science. … And people don’t want to believe in bad news.”

A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that public trust in the government is near historic lows, with 17% of Americans say they have faith in government “always” or “most of the time.”

“Italy was hit hard, but now it has leveled off because people were more trusting in the government and ready to follow orders,” Christensen said. “Spain, France, Germany, they all got through it. And Americans are just cranky when they are asked to follow rules; it’s part of being an American.”

Christensen said the face mask debate in liberal Santa Clara County barely rises to the intensity in other states. The county, predominantly left-leaning, “has more trust in the government and science,” he said.

Even Councilmember Johnny Khamis, one of Silicon Valley’s most conservative lawmakers who initially questioned the extent of San Jose’s face covering requirement, has come around on the mask mandate. His initial concerns, he said, were centered around enforcement.

“I don’t disagree (with wearing masks),” Khamis said in an interview Sunday. “It’s just an issue that is difficult to regulate… I don’t want to use the stick on people, especially those who can’t afford this right now.”

When the city ordinance was first introduced, many told Khamis that it might violate certain liberties.

“We explained to them, and people have calmed down,” Khamis said, adding that the city’s requirements exempt those with health conditions and children under age 6 from wearing a mask.

The ‘new normal’

On a summer day this week, most downtown San Jose patrons appeared content with the new “normal.”

“It’s not that difficult like everyone has made it seem,” said Susie Brookshire, who was waiting for her coffee at Academic Coffee with Dietz. “It’s not a big deal, I don’t understand why people are fighting this.”

Down the road, Donald Hines was among half a dozen customers waiting in front of Bicycle Express. Everyone in line stood away from each other, with a face mask on.

“I feel like I’m doing my part to protect other people as much as I can,” Hines said. “Considering the dire consequences of the virus, … I prefer to err on the side of caution, so I favored the stricter regulations (of San Jose).”

Kim, a woman who declined to provide a last name, donned a peach-colored mask as she finished loading groceries from Đại-Thành Supermarket.

“I wear a mask to protect myself and others, but I can’t stop people from not doing it,” Kim said in Vietnamese. “We don’t know whether we’re sick with the virus or not, so we need to be careful regardless. But if people don’t believe in the virus, they won’t wear a mask.”

Kim said she doesn’t leave the house outside of getting groceries.

New cases of COVID-19 continue to climb in Santa Clara County, with a record high of 178 new infections reported on July 2. On the same day, a picture of crowded Santana Row circulated Twitter, showing many dining at an outdoor restaurant without a mask on.

The county was also denied state approval to reopen nail and hair salons, spas and other large gatherings this weekend, as it has landed on the state watchlist for hospitalization spikes since June, raising questions about whether enforcement of San Jose’s face mask mandate is working. Khamis said San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia assured him in late June that officers will continue giving out warnings instead of issuing citations for mask violations. 

For Leandra Jordan, owner of 3-week-old nursery Plantlush in downtown San Jose, the biggest challenge is remembering to wear her mask. After a mask-less couple walked through her store, Jordan said she didn’t realize they were violating the rules until after they left the shop.

“Overall, people have been good. It hasn’t been an issue with people being noncompliant, but sometimes I just forget,” Jordan said, adding that she’s guilty of ditching her mask sometimes, too. “It’s also hard to breathe with a mask on when I have to load things from my store out to the car.”

Jay Ahmad of Houdini’s Smoke Shop often has to remind customers to wear a mask in his shop. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Two doors down from Jordan’s store, Jay Ahmad of Houdini’s Smoke Shop also had a customer walk in without a mask Wednesday afternoon.

“He was just in and out — he just needed a soda — then it’s fine. But if you’re going to be in the store for a while, you need to have it,” said Ahmad while donning a surgical mask and gloves. “It’s a new thing. They don’t want to wear a mask, then they can’t come inside.”

Ahmad said he’s never had problems when asking customers to comply with face covering mandates. The shop also hands out free masks if a customer doesn’t have one.

“These guys, they have masks, but they just forget. You gotta remind them, you know,” Ahmad said as he gestured to a customer who entered without a face covering. “No one is used to that.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on twitter.

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