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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Mary Colson is seen wearing a surgical mask as she loads groceries into her car after shopping at Publix on Market Street on Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Chattanooga, Tenn. "I've heard people say wearing masks when they go out makes it difficult to breathe. For me, it's more of a courtesy thing," Colson said of her decision to wear a mask while shopping.

Despite experts recommending people wear face coverings in public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a majority of people in the Chattanooga area seem to be going into stores, parks, restaurants and other locations every day without wearing a mask.

So why do some of the people cover up, some not so much — and why do so many of us fight about how real the threat of the disease is?

In March, the month the first local case of the novel coronavirus hit Chattanooga, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began advising that people wear face coverings to help prevent the spread of the virus.

But when the Times Free Press tallied the mask status of more than 700 people at grocery stores in April, the majority of individuals were not wearing any face covering, despite pleas from local authorities ahead of the reopening of businesses and crowded spaces.

"As we look to reopen, we're going to have to be even better about following public safety measures," Hamilton County Health Department Administrator Becky Barnes said. "Washing hands, staying 6 feet apart, wearing face coverings and following the CDC guidance is going to be more important than ever to make sure we don't have a worse outbreak."

A little over a month later, public places are almost back up to pre-virus traffic levels, with many still opting out of masks, despite a rapidly increasing number of cases in Hamilton County.

"When you go out, it's less than half of the people in the grocery store wearing masks, and it's something that people need to take seriously," County Mayor Jim Coppinger told the Times Free Press. "People need to know, and a lot of them don't, how important the mask is."

 

'FED UP'

"I just feel like people are fed up with having to do stuff like stay home or wear a mask or, you know, all of this new stuff for a virus that's not that bad," Ahmed Aljack, 17, said while leaving Walmart without a mask on Thursday afternoon. "It's just that we don't even know if it helps that much, and I don't have to wear it, and no one else really wears one, so I'm not that worried about it."

On the other hand, Anne Wayons, 41, says it's her "second skin" and her responsibility.

"Look, I don't think wearing a mask helps protect me, because that's what the experts and the news says, but if wearing it helps me not spread it, why would I not?" Wayons asked. "It's like you don't drive drunk, even if you think you'll make it home, because you don't want to hurt someone else ... so you Uber. Not because you think you'll kill someone, but because it's your responsibility in case you might. You don't have to be ill to spread it, but I still might, so the mask is my responsibility."

In response to social media posts by the Times Free Press, more than two dozen citizens responded with their views on masks. All but one were in support of their use.

"I'd say the reason I wear a mask is pretty simple, it's such a small act to potentially save lives. Yes, there was debate early on if they would do any good. Yes, current masks aren't foolproof. But ultimately if it does anything to curb the spread of the disease by even a small bit, then it's worth it," Robby Ryder said by email. "My parents are old enough to be in the higher risk category, several other family members and friends' parents are as well. I don't want to be the one that results in it spreading to these people, so I choose to wear a mask."

(READ MORE: How to wear a mask to prevent spread of COVID-19: Chattanooga officials, CDC provide tips)

Some of those in opposition argue that masks offer fake reassurance.

"Nope. And I will continue to do so," Twitter user John Bivona wrote of not wearing a face covering. "Masks are basically placebos."

Others, like Theresa Stanford, 39, who was shopping without a mask on Thursday accompanied by two young relatives also without masks, believe safety is important, but masks aren't necessary.

"I do wear one sometimes, but not often because it's annoying, it makes it hard to breathe and I don't think it makes a big difference," she said. "I do stand, you know, further than usual from people, and I wash my hands a lot. But I don't think a mask is helping me very much."

Still, Stanford says, she's worried about others being inconsiderate of the virus.

"I think other people don't take this very seriously but I do," she said. "It concerns me when people go out and stand too close together or just, you know, don't act smart."

Photo Gallery

Differences on masks

(VIEW OUR CORONAVIRUS TRACKER HERE)

 

'CAREFUL' VS. 'NON-CAREFUL'

Since many people are making their mask decision either on safety concerns for them and others or as a statement of their individual freedom, some consider the decision an important moral test.

The differing opinions have caused enough tension that Carolyn Jernigan, 69, filed a complaint with store management after she says she was tripped and mocked by a young man in the Fort Oglethorpe Walmart who commented on her mask during the incident.

"I think it's very important to wear a mask because there are people who are asymptomatic who could be spreading the virus," Jernigan said. "I'm not sure why people are so mad about it, but I think the ones who don't want to wear a mask are mad at us for making them look inconsiderate for not wearing one."

On a recent Reddit thread in the subreddit r/Chattanooga, a public forum for locals to discuss and share a variety of information, hundreds of users debated the principles of wearing a mask after one user started a thread with the title "WEAR YOUR DAMN MASK!"

While dozens of users echoed the sentiment, others argued the validity of masks, accusing those in support of "fear mongering."

"It doesn't transmit easily from surfaces, especially if you wash your hands like crazy, like I've done my whole life. If you're close enough for someone to cough or sneeze on you, I promise you the mask isn't doing s—- to contain that virus. Even if you're both wearing one," MrPickles423 wrote. "You people are not speaking from a scientific point of view and just fear mongering."

"You people give me a good chuckle everyday. Watch out the boogeyman is gonna get ya," another user wrote.

While none of the sources interviewed by the newspaper referenced political influences in their decision, a national debate has formed as many conservative leaders and individuals lean away from protective measures, like masks, citing liberty and blaming "libs," including in some comments on the Reddit thread.

Liberals are seen as favoring masks and other protective practices, with some Reddit users in the Chattanooga discussion thread blaming President Donald Trump and his followers for "denialism."

Another user, Ginger1306, defined the two factions in a different way: labeling them the "careful" and "non-careful" citizens, proposing separate business hours for those who are being cautious.

"There are at least two kinds of freedom: 1. Freedom to do something 2. Freedom from something," user JimWilliams423 wrote. "Lots of people talk about their freedom to do things like carry a gun. Not enough people talking about their freedom from things like being free of the fear of getting sick or injured (and the fear of being bankrupted by the medical bills)."

Coppinger told the Times Free Press Wednesday that this argument is based on a misunderstanding of facts.

"I know a lot of people aren't wearing them and they need to understand and really listen to the advice of the experts and wear a mask," said Coppinger, who wears a mask when he goes out. "It's important for you and those around you to be safe ... people have a responsibility and if they do right, we'll be able to stop some of the spread and get back closer to normal sooner."

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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