Opinion: Philadelphia’s anti-mask attitudes end up being anti-Black

Public pressure on the new health commissioner to reverse a reinstatement of the Philly mask mandate ignored vaccination rates in minority communities.

Customers wearing face masks shop at the Reading Terminal Market

Customers wearing face masks shop at the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Were pandemic-era masks always a nuisance? Of course, upon arrival at the grocery store or your favorite retailer, you’d leave yours at home without a backup in the purse or glove compartment. Still now, even more annoying, is the relentless ping-pong of multiple government agencies who can’t decide on whether to stick with a “mask mandate” or not.

But, did we ever find the studies that masks hurt, maim, injure or kill people? If you’ve started that search, I’ll save you time: nope.

Many are feeling “liberated” now that we’re navigating spaces minus the minor inconvenience of a clumsy facial apparatus. So pervasive is the post-masking and the eerie ambience of “normal” that even I’m forgetting my supply of masks on the occasional errand run or during “post-pandemic” in-person meet-ups.

Yet, the abrupt about-face in recent weeks on mask safety measures is a very troubling cautionary tale we need to think more deeply about.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Philadelphia Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole’s bold decision last month to reinstitute the indoor protection measure, and then to buckle under the weight of anti-science quackery and political temper tantrums was yet another example of our failure to combat COVID – and, tragically, a warning that we’ll likely fail the next round.

The story never told during masking scare media reports is that just an average 54 percent of Black Philadelphia residents between the ages of 5-65+ are fully vaccinated, with only 20 percent of Black 5-11 year old children vaccinated. Yet, White, Latino and Asian vaccination rates are comfortably higher at 62 percent, 66 percent (each still shy of the 75 percent of more “herd immunity” threshold) and 86 percent (touchdown), respectively.

It’s even worse for booster shots, which will become essential in warding off ugly future variants. Just 29 percent of Latino and 32 percent of Black Philadelphia residents between the ages of 18-65+ are boosted compared to 38 percent of whites and 50 percent of Asians.

This inability to instill and carry out the most basic tenets of a best-practice “common good” is also, in large part, why we’re now losing Roe v. Wade, why we’ve lost the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and why we’re on the cusp of a full blown rollback of Constitutional protections embedded in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the oft-forgotten but truly crucial “Reconstruction Acts” designed and passed after the Civil War that provided the foundation for our civil rights today.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The sinister Trumpians, MAGAs, Q’Anons and neo-Confederates pressed to recreate Antebellum America who busily chisel away at the civil rights which are, indisputably, the fundamental pillars of our democracy are the ones who bullied us into ripping our masks off. Gullible, afraid and selfish, we rejected the need to protect ourselves and our communities from not only a vicious pandemic, but also the violent plans of Confederate revivalists. Once the masks came off, our white flag of surrender popped up.

Which makes the visceral reaction from adamant anti-maskers (mostly white, according to polling data) to safety measures like Philadelphia’s previously revived indoor “mask mandate” so irrational and dangerous. There’s little difference from Republicans justifying their destruction of voting laws on the lie that “voter fraud” is real. But, is there really an “election integrity” problem requiring a voter suppression fix? Of course not. Yet, New Age white nationalists spreading the infodemic myth on loop to fool people, steal elections and take us back 160 years.

Not only were mostly white people, even white progressives, upset that they were being asked to mask up in the poorest and Blackest big city in the nation, they seemed comfortable in advancing MAGA talking points when doing so.

Strangely enough, there was more anger at the masks (which don’t kill) than at COVID itself (which kills). So, what exactly was the threat? Did we find out that higher rates of masking increased hospitalization and death? No – in fact, we found lots of data showing the exact opposite: if we hadn’t worn masks as much as we did, we would’ve seen more people die.

Here’s a 2022 University of Penn study making that same conclusion, a 2021 IMF analysis showing it, and a thorough PLOS One examination of county data ending up in the same spot.

So, just imagine if everyone had just followed simple directions the entire pandemic time.

Do masks hurt the economy? Well, actually, come to find out, masks boosted the economy during uncertain times, according to Washington University in St. Louis research. Some parents are tripping, but were masks killing kids? As a matter of fact, Duke University researchers released a March study of 61 districts nationwide showing not only did masks not kill kids, but they provided 72 percent more protection.

But, wait: did masks make kids dumber and take away their learning time? According to National Geographic’s deep dive on that issue, nothing there, either.

Anti-masking was always based on baseless objections to a masking risk that didn’t exist. Hence, Bettigole’s original decision to re-impose a mask mandate against a national trend toward the opposite – as a responsible public health practitioner – was, rightfully, born out of real science and concern over deep racial disparities that still persist in both infections and vaccination rates.

Philly finally has a Public Health Commissioner sensitive to health access and care gaps for the city’s most vulnerable Black residents – something her predecessor never cared about. No, in fact, the last public health commissioner was too busy giving non-compete COVID testing contracts to uncredentialed college-age white startup bros and hiding desecrated Black bodies from their families.

Bettigole and others were simply prioritizing the health of our most vulnerable and, still, less vaccinated Black residents – which is the type of “common good” coalescing we should’ve been doing throughout the pandemic. If we still have a significant chunk of the citywide population that’s unvaccinated, along with those grappling with comorbidities, compromised immune systems and a range of disabilities, we should’ve stayed masked up. Just because you’re relatively stable, perhaps affluent, able to do hybrid work and everyone in your household and social circle is vaccinated doesn’t mean that, magically, Philly is out of the pandemic woods. It’s not.

Yet, places like Philadelphia with a long history of racial zoning, segregation and systemic undeserving of Black populations have a tendency of doing that: desensitizing all of us to the struggles others face with tougher plights. A smarter and equitable approach is not an exasperated public backlash against safety measures like masks that kept many of us alive.

In the meantime, we’ll need to soldier on with coordinated information-access efforts like the LOVEPhilly or “Local Outreach and Vaccination Effort” I’ve launched in partnership with non-profit Forum Philly, to help increase Black resident vaccination rates.

Leaving Philadelphia’s Black residents stuck in a state of public health vulnerability and disparate sickness is not a very smart or community thing to do, either. Our failure to protect them is a failure to protect all of us from persistent ideological threats that have made this pandemic and our political climate worse. And as we head into another crucial election year, we have an opportunity to stall those responsible for bringing us to this anti-masking, anti-Black, and very anti-American moment. Shame on us if we don’t.

CHARLES ELLISON is Principal of B|E Strategy, Publisher of the BEnote.com and Host/Executive Producer of “Reality Check” on WURD radio in Philadelphia. He is engaged on Twitter @ellisonreport

Subscribe to PlanPhilly

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal