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A cancer survivor vulnerable to serious illness, Chany Ockert worried as the coronavirus swept through China and then northern Italy last winter. When, she wondered, would it reach her remote corner of the United States.

Now it has, with the force of a hurricane. Ockert lives in Flathead County in northwestern Montana, home to Glacier National Park and one of the worst-hit parts of the state. Montana did well early on, preventing spread of the virus with lockdowns and travel restrictions, but precautions were loosened in June and it now has one of the worst Covid-19 rates in the country.

Ockert, a 42-year-old nonprofit consultant, has been working from home and avoiding public spaces and crowds. When she was asked earlier this fall to teach a course at the local community college, she agreed, thinking that students would be following Montana’s statewide order mandating face masks be worn indoors.  Minutes after the first class started, however, her students removed their masks. A week later, she was diagnosed with Covid-19. She had what’s considered a mild case, but that still meant weeks of breathing difficulty and nausea.

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“It’s cognitive dissonance, for people don’t believe the virus exists,” Ockert said in an interview, her voice still strained from the effects of the illness. “It was frustrating to me when I am taking the precautions, and then to have a work setting where those precautions were disregarded.”

As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office in the midst of a devastating pandemic that has already killed more than 250,000 Americans, he’s already begun urging broader use of masks, and many public health experts hope one of his first actions is to declare a national mask mandate.  Montana could offer clues about how that might work — or not work.

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Biden, who wears a face mask in public, has spoken repeatedly about the need to make masks non-political, a mantra he has continued since the Nov. 3 election. This month, he called masks patriotic and said wearing them is everyone’s responsibility.

“It doesn’t matter your party, your point of view. We can save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months,” Biden said at an event in Delaware.

Masks have proven effective around the world to slow the spread of the virus, but President Trump and a litany of Republican leaders down the line, from members of Congress to governors and state legislators, have refused to wear them.

The result has been widespread confusion and skepticism about the value of masks and the politicization of a basic tool against the virus. While multiple surveys show mask adherence increased throughout the year, to 85 percent of people reporting they had worn masks in August, there is still a partisan divide. A Pew Research Center study in August found a 16-point gap between Democrats and Republicans on wearing masks in public settings.

The divide is evident in Republican-controlled states across a wide swath of the Great Plains and the northern Rockies, many of which were late to adopt mask mandates, or where they don’t exist at all. South Dakota, which now has the highest daily Covid death rate in the world, still has no mask rule and many local governments have refrained from stepping in. From the Dakotas to Idaho, Utah and Iowa, rising cases and resistance against masks has led to heated confrontations and political fights. In many places, local health departments have hesitated to impose and enforce mask mandates in the face of heated public opposition.

In Montana, the Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, imposed a mask mandate months ago in all but a few tiny counties with very few Covid cases. However, enforcement has been largely left to businesses, and from bars to the state capitol in Helena, resistance has cropped up. In at least two cases, angry anti-maskers have threatened bar and restaurant employees with guns. As a result, whether people wear masks largely depends on their politics and the strength of the local health board.

In Flathead County, a member of the local health board who early on stirred skepticism about the deadliness of the virus, has cultivated a large following that routinely defies standard public health guidance. The health board has refused to limit the size of gatherings — despite a state mandate limiting crowds to 25 when social distancing isn’t possible — and with more than 5,500 testing positive for the virus to date, the county accounts for roughly 10 percent of all of Montana’s diagnosed Covid cases.

Mask defiance is not contained to the northeastern corner of Big Sky Country. A group called the Freedom Protection Project has toured the state campaigning against the mask mandate and raising money to fight it in court. In an email, the group framed its mission in language similar to vaccine skeptics’ talking points. “The media has grossly mischaracterized our group,” its statement said. “We are not an anti-mask group. We are a pro civil liberties organization. We have not had any anti-mask events.”

When state legislators met recently to elect the leadership for the legislative session that begins in January, dozens of Republican House and Senate members met in the Capitol, unmasked. Multiple Republican legislators did not respond to requests for comment on the issue.

Similarly, Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte, a Republican, was frequently photographed during the campaign not wearing a mask. Republicans swept the state on Nov. 3 in a historically lopsided election. Though they declined to be identified, several people who work in and around the Montana Legislature said they are concerned about a potential outbreak in the Capitol.

The county health board sent a letter to the state GOP leadership asking members to limit their travel and opt for a virtual session, but there’s been no public response.

Public-health experts say mask wearing is not a lost cause and a national mask mandate could turn things around by lifting the burden off of local and state officials.

Dr. Abraar Karan, with Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, said national political leadership in the post-Trump era needs to reframe masks as an easy-to-use weapon against the pandemic, with very little downside. For the remaining states without mask mandates, and those having trouble with enforcement, having a national rule to be the theoretical bad guy will ease the pressure on local health officials.

“The other way to look at this is that if you have a national mask mandate, it becomes more normalized,” said Karan. “It’s got to come from the federal government. It will be harder and harder for individual governments to go against a national mandate.”

Dr Leana Wen, a former Baltimore health commissioner and a visiting professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, said a national mask mandate would be a herculean task to implement, but is also a gravely necessary measure. Getting local musicians, writers, sports figures and others to take up the cause could make a major difference, she told STAT.

For people like Chany Ockert, a national mask mandate might be arriving too late, but she still believes it’s necessary and people can change.

Since she got sick, she said, “l have friends, who have changed their views slightly.”

Correction: Chany Ockert’s last name was incorrect in a previous version of this story. 

  • I’ve heard the seat belt argument before and I don’t see what that has to do with being forced to wear a mask. Last spring we put up a chain link fence to keep out the mosquitoes. Worked just as well as wearing a mask to stop a virus.

  • Hey Kathleen,

    Did you bother to travel to the Flathead, to investigate the actual situation? Maybe talk to some local residents about it? Can you cite any data on Flathead County compliance levels with the existing, statewide mask mandate, and how that compares to other parts of the state?

    I live in Kalispell, and go to restaurants and stores every day. Compliance with the statewide directive appears to be over 98%. It is incredibly rare for me to see an unmasked individual inside public spaces.

    I also travel across the state. Anecdotally, I see no appreciable difference in compliance with the statewide mask mandate, when comparing the more densely populated counties. (Flathead, Missoula, Cascade, Yellowstone, Gallatin) Compliance decreases the further one goes into the more sparsely populated areas.

    Why does our local health board need to make duplicative mask and crowd size mandates to the existing statewide ones? Why is the statewide mandate insufficient, and how would a local or national mandate be any different?

    Who should the health board task with enforcing the mandate? The already over stretched local health department? Should they request state, county, local, or federal law enforcement to station at local businesses and restaurants to enforce compliance? Who?

    Just a few journalistic type questions that you might want to consider asking.

    • Spent a few hours at a craft show in the Flathead today.

      Counted over 400 people.

      Only 2 were not in compliance with the statewide mask mandate.

  • The author is a leftist vegan who is writing a book on inequality. That should tell you all you need to know about her “policization.” She claims the goal is to reduce and prevent further politicization of masks then she writes a long article that does exactly that. This is the most politically polarized article I’ve ever read on masks, pointing the political finger throughout and placing blame on Trump while making Biden the potential hero, blaming red states while crediting blue states, blaming republicans while praising democrats.

    Then the false statement that “Masks have proven effective around the world to slow the spread of the virus” which isn’t true in any state in the US, despite mask mandates for 5 months now with > 85% compliance, nor has it worked in any country outside of E Asia / Oceana, where other factors are at play.

    Bottom line: we’ve worn these masks in public in most states month after month after month yet the virus spreads like wildfire. They’re not going to suddenly start working with the author’s preferred political party in power.

    • That is absolutely not what the linked study says. How do you double blind mask wearing? How could a participant not know if they were assigned a to wear a mask or not?

      Below, I literally copied and pasted the limitations section from the link you provided.

      “Limitation:
      Inconclusive results, missing data, variable adherence, patient-reported findings on home tests, *no blinding,* (emphasis mine) and no assessment of whether masks could decrease disease transmission from mask wearers to others.”

  • Seat belts don’t prevent 100% of car accident deaths either. So who needs ’em, right?

  • Reon says..“It was frustrating to me when I am taking the precautions, and then to have a work setting where those precautions were disregarded.” Excuse me? Did someone force you to work there? Could you have not made a choice to leave instead of staying then complaining ?

    • Exactly. If you consider yourself vulnerable than isolate yourself and take precautions. Don t impose on others to thearetically protect you from covid.

  • We as a nation need to see public hangings of the politicians and bureaucrats as they are raping the taxpayers and destroying the republic from with in.

    • Leon,
      You might be on the right track.

      They definitely need to be constantly hooked up to lie detectors 24/7. Plus, If cops need to wear body cams to keep them honest, so should all politicians.

  • “Masks have proven effective around the world to slow the spread of the virus”

    EVIDENCE PLEASE. When you make completely unsupported statements you tell us that you’re not a journalist, you’re a propagandist. Since the virus HASN’T been slowed – at least according to the media – and is “surging” everywhere then where exactly have masks and lockdowns been effective? Because if they were effective, we wouldn’t have a surge, would we?

    If you are so scared of the virus then stay home, hide under your covers and let the rest of us go about our lives. Very few people claim the virus doesn’t exist. The vast majority of people who are opposed to having their lives ruined simply believe it isn’t nearly as deadly as advertised. A fact which IS supported by the extremely low death rate.

    • Great, you get it and survive. But you ARE aware of the lasting impacts for many, “healhty, young” individuals, right? I’m not going to change your mind, but if you’re curious how screwed up this could make you, google it. Or not. You might survive with chronic fatigue syndrome or what have you, but you kill a neighbor’s elderly relative.

      Jesus, we are just repeating history machines… From the times of greece, to middle-ages Europe to now: pandemic spreads from selfish attitudes like this guy’s.

    • @John
      Those “lasting impacts” you speak of are rare. A large percentage (est. 18%) of this nation has already had the virus so we know what the effects are. Almost half of all infections are completely asymptomatic.

      That brings us to your point about “pandemic spreads from selfish attitudes.” No, it doesn’t. The pandemic spreads in spite of near-universal masking, combined with social distancing, curfews, business closures, etc etc. This virus spreads (as Dr Osterholm likes to say) “anywhere there is wood to burn.” Menaing anywhere there is a population without sufficient immunity, the virus will find that population and spread through it. This has proven to be the case across the nation, as no state regardless of politics or policies, has prevented it from happening.

  • A ‘promised but not delivered’ wall built around some of the more separatist, ideological states more concerned with their own ‘freedoms’ than the health of neighboring states seems a way to treat them.

  • “…the county accounts for roughly 10 percent of all of Montana’s diagnosed Covid cases.”

    Population of Montana? Roughly 1 million.

    Population of Flathead County? Roughly 100,000.

    But it’s all about mask non-compliance in the Flathead, right?

    #facepalm #rolleyes #journalismisdead

    • And Flathead County annually has around 2 million out of area visitations to Glacier National Park and the Flathead lake region. If casual, short term, exposure to the virus was as big a threat as implied by many, every resident of Flathead County should have been infected over the summer tourist season. Yet the facts are the county is faring exactly in line with the rest of the state. It won’t be today or tomorrow, but some day the entire house of cards the so called experts have built regarding COVID transmission, prevention and morbidity is going to collapse. And just like the boy who cried wolf, when the next threat emerges the public is going to shrug their shoulders and ignore the experts. Hopefully that next threat isn’t truly as dangerous as they have falsely made COVID out to be.

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