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What’s scarier than Halloween? A pandemic without masks

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 31, 2020 5:00 pm

Americans just love Halloween. At least they did before COVID-19 arrived, when trick or treating was still a thing, and celebrities and Instagram influencers would go crazy every Oct. 30 outdoing each other with elaborate costumes and masks, looking to go viral.

But now putting on a mask, for many Americans, seems like a major imposition. We’ve seen videos of public meltdowns in Starbucks and Walmart, where customers raise holy hell insisting on their “right” to go shopping for Halloween candy sans face masks. Scary!

While polls show most Americans approve of wearing masks to stop COVID, the whole subject has become something of a political horror show, with the White House modeling behavior that sends chills up and down the spine. When Vice President Mike Pence recently faced an outbreak among his staff, he skipped self-quarantine and insisted on attending public rallies without a mask. (Cue horror movie trope: “It’s coming from inside the White House!”). When Trump spokesman Mark Meadows recently shrugged and admitted to CNN’s Jake Tapper, “We’re not going to control the pandemic,” it sounded like a cheesy ‘50s atomic horror movie (“Bullets can’t stop it… Bleach can’t stop it… Masks? Well, maybe… possibly… But, on second thought, nah…”).

We get it. We’re all sick of wearing masks. Nobody loves the idea of a piece of fabric covering your nose and mouth every time you pop your head out in public. But for the most part, Filipinos and much of the world have agreed to wear them, for the greater good.

Yet we’ve just witnessed the strange scenario of a US president catching COVID, possibly giving it to his wife and son, and watching it spread outward to over 20 people within his staff. And just in time for Halloween! Trick or Treat!

There’s a decidedly mixed message from the White House about masks, and it has little to do with science, and much to do with optics, not to mention a misguided sense of “freedom.”

Though Trump will occasionally — and halfheartedly — endorse wearing masks, he’s also repeatedly framed it as a “personal choice.” Unfortunately, one person’s “choice” to freely spread COVID particles by not wearing a mask endangers another’s “choice” to stay alive during the pandemic. It’s a lesson not much dwelled upon in Civics 101.

The president’s arbitrary preference for skipping masks is even more dangerous, because here, he has apparently hinged public policy on personal whim. Witness Trump’s very first utterance on whether he’d personally wear a face mask, back in early April: “I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I don’t know, somehow I don’t see it for myself. I just, I just don’t.”

Imagine dismissing the simplest, most effective health measure in a pandemic because you don’t like the way it looks. For Trump, masks just don’t seem strong, or manly.

Yet we know what happens in horror movies where people try to wave off the danger, or say it will quickly go away. We all know what happens to the gung-ho Rambo types in Aliens. We’ve all seen the mayor in Jaws insist on keeping the beach open, when the shark fin is plainly in sight.

For months, Trump mocked wearing masks, slamming reporters who wouldn’t lower theirs to ask him questions as “politically correct,” and lambasting political opponent Joe Biden at the first debate. (“I don’t wear masks like him. Every time you see him, he’s got a mask. He could be speaking 200 feet away from them, and he shows up with the biggest mask I’ve ever seen.”)

The irony, of course, is that this same president came down with coronavirus two weeks later.

The message? Be afraid. Be responsibly afraid.

Meanwhile, in the US, people have had to grapple with their first COVID Halloween, with trick or treating pretty much off the menu. Some tried Zoom trick or treating, wearing cute costumes, dressing up as COVID molecules or Lysol bottles. Others modeled more fashion-forward masks. Some even turned Halloween masks into political statements. One brisk seller this season was the “Karen mask,” a rubber replica of the now-common face of the typical angry White American women, caught on viral video threatening to call the police on an African-American, or lashing out for being asked to wear a face mask in a public place. It’s just another way things have gotten really weird in the time of COVID.

A wiser political candidate, interested in helping people avoid a scary virus, could have tried to turn this dilemma into a political win: Hey, masks can be fun this Halloween, masks can be chic and sexy. So wear a mask already!

Instead, when Trump returned to the White House after his COVID bout, he reportedly planned to mount the Rose Garden stairs, face the cameras… and dramatically rip open his shirt, revealing a Superman logo.

Hey, that might have been cool. Over the top, ridiculous, and not very effective, health-wise — but in the spirit of Halloween, kind of cool. Instead, he settled for the even-less-effective gesture of dramatically tearing off his face mask, like a superhero tossing away his one true superpower.

All because he didn’t dig wearing a mask.

Pretty scary.