A mask is a simple thing. A piece of cloth with stretchy bands at each end. But in the United States there is a huge controversy. Most people have followed public health recommendations and donned a face covering in public to slow the spread of COVID-19. Others passionately fight against them, saying they impinge on individual freedom.

While most polls show a majority of people wear masks when out in public, a growing debate over whether businesses and local governments should mandate them has become a divisive political issue. A recent Pew Research Center poll has suggested that Democrats were more likely to wear masks than Republicans. This, of course, is in line with messaging from leaders in both parties.

A political divide

Democratic leaders at the local, state and national levels have been more vocal about wearing a mask. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, for instance, is among a sizable list of Democrat policymakers who have made it mandatory to wear a mask in public. Ditto for California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has said if he were in the White House, he would “do everything possible to make it required that people have to wear masks in pubic.”

In contrast, while many GOP leaders have also spoken to the importance of wearing a mask, other top Republicans have been more hesitant to mandate masks—even as their states have witnessed a sharp surge in new cases during the summer months. It was only recently that President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (CA-25) have yielded to scientific data outlining the importance of covering your face and staying at least six feet from another person when in public.

This sentiment resonated in Texas. In June, Gov. Greg Abbott initially resisted calls from local municipalities to require masks. He prohibited mandatory enforcement. Now Abbott mandates masks statewide.

Infringing on individual liberty

“We wanted to make sure that individual liberty is not infringed upon by government, and hence government cannot require individuals to wear a mask” Abbott said.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a mask to prevent infection, last spring Trump suggested that wearing a mask could be seen as a political statement against him and mocked Biden for wearing one in public.

That message reached the public, which has since turned the debate into a “culture war.” Some businesses have strictly enforced the mandate, leading to heated arguments, trading insults, and even fist fights among customers. In trying to keep the peace among prospective clientele, some businesses have put up signs telling patrons they are not required to wear a mask inside the establishment. The employees, who increasingly man the front lines of the debate, are caught in the middle in trying to explain to confused—and frequently angry—customers who are adhering to health guidelines versus those who believe their civil rights are being trampled upon. The most extreme case to date happened in Flint, Mich. where an employee of a Family Dollar Store was shot after telling a customer her daughter had to wear a mask to enter the store.

‘Burn Your Mask Challenge’

Now, what began as largely “mask-less” protests against shutdown orders has spiraled into wider anti-mask sentiment bifurcated by passionate political sentiment. For instance, “Reopen NC,” a group that opposes shutdown orders in North Carolina, said masks were “muzzles” that, along with things like mandatory temperature checks, were “ways our freedom is being eroded.” They launched a “Burn Your Mask Challenge” inviting people to post videos on social media of themselves burning their masks under the hashtag “#IgniteFreedom.”

Some health experts have suggested that part of the resistance to masks may have stemmed from confusing public messaging last spring from public health officials. When the virus first appeared on U.S. shores, these persons said masks were not necessary for anyone who was not showing symptoms. They discouraged people from buying them in fear that hospitals could run short.

By the summer, science and reason were enjoined in a battle with conjecture and instinct to determine public policy in a time of a deadly pandemic. Partisanship and economic interests have each played a significant role in the confusion. So have misinformation and outright falsehoods.

In April at a House Rules Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., the Democratic chairman slammed Republican members for not wearing masks. At various rallies across the nation calling for states to ease stay-at-home orders, Trump supporters had plenty of pro-Trump signs and “MAGA” hats, but very few masks. Since masks have become a flash point of political ideology, what has persuaded so many people to jeopardize their health and that of their families? Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College, suggested a simple answer.

In the end, it’s all political

“These days, everything is a partisan issue,” he said. “Everything is political, and that includes health regulations.”

The debate of whether to wear a mask has sparked considerable division on Capitol Hill, where two Republicans last month refused to follow a new directive from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (CA-12). Rep. Tom McClintock (CA-4) said he believed that masks are more effective at “spreading panic” and much less useful in “stopping a virus.” After his brief remarks, he put on a mask.

Slowly, more persons are adhering to the suggestion that masks can save lives. Rob Stutzman, a GOP consultant in Sacramento, explained the controversy as “people were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.” He said that Republicans, by nature, are more focused on individual rights. Even after the CDC recommended wearing a mask, Trump said he would not wear one and the vast majority of his supporters followed along.

“It’s a recommendation,” Trump said last spring. “I just don’t want to wear one myself.”

While the President has since reversed his personal preference, many people did not. This was especially true of GOP office holders. Crossing the President is something that’s likely to damage their political careers. No Republican wants to be wearing a mask while walking behind a president who is barefaced.

“They tend to bristle when presented with government mandates,” Stutzman added.

‘Don’t cross’ the President?

Republicans have provided plenty of reasons for not wearing masks. Trump said he didn’t need to because he is regularly tested for the coronavirus. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul argued that since he tested positive in March, he’s now immune. In Ohio, state representative Nino Vitale said that because “we’re all created in the image and likeness of God…I won’t wear a mask.”

A Gallup Poll in June found that 62 percent of Americans were using masks, although that included 75 percent of Democrats surveyed and 58 percent of Republicans. In early July, the number of people using masks had climbed to roughly 75 percent.

Currently, about half of states require masks to work outside of the home. Most states define acceptable as “cloth face covering.” Most states don’t require a mask while one is outside and able to consistently maintain a social distance of six feet (with non-members of their family).

While common exemptions  include medical conditions or disabilities that impeded breathing would place the person at risk, there are sometimes significant variations in the ages of children not expected to wear a mask. All say that any child under two years of age should be exempt (consistent with CDC guidance), while some have designated anywhere from 9 to 12 years of age.

There’s another consequence—still being worked out—stemming from the mask issue: Litigation. Businesses are experiencing a spike in liability lawsuits surrounding masks and other safety measures and enforcement. The debate to reopen school campuses only adds to this dilemma. Lawmakers on both sides of the isle agree that the seriousness of the issue cannot be understated, as some of these lawsuits have contained claims of discrimination (from patrons with disabilities), negligence and even wrongful death.