AMARILLO, Texas — Don Caple won’t wear a mask.
He doesn’t think they actually stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, and he’s pretty sure mask mandates are a “communistic move” by the government to see how much people are willing to give up their freedom.
But if you’re in the market for a mask, does he have a deal for you. For only $10, he’ll sell you a face mask with a muscly President Donald Trump depicted as a machine-gun-clutching Rambo. Or one with a Trump 2020 campaign slogan. Or one with the coiled rattlesnake from the Gadsden flag and the words “Don’t tread on me” replaced with “Don’t cough on me.”
“They’re a hot-ticket-selling item,” said Caple, who sells masks from a Trump-themed trailer near the famed Cadillac Ranch art installation in Amarillo. “I don’t agree with it. But if they want to buy them, I’m not gonna argue.”
Mask mandates are in effect in more than half of U.S. states, and facial coverings are required in many major chains such as Walmart, Target and Starbucks. So, like it or not, most Americans who want to leave their homes must possess some kind of mask — leading even the biggest cynics to try and make a buck off of them.
On Etsy, online shoppers can choose from scores of homemade cloth facial coverings that say, “This mask is useless!” Sellers on Amazon hawk masks reading, “Wake up, sheeple!” And on eBay, the skeptical masker can purchase one that says “Scamdemic.”
Public health experts say masking is essential for the U.S. to climb out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 145,000 people in the U.S., where cases of the coronavirus have climbed past 4.1 million while crippling the economy and throwing the upcoming school year into chaos.
But broad skepticism of masks remains, largely along party lines, with polls showing that Republicans are less likely to wear masks than Democrats or independent voters. Officials in red states that swiftly reopened their economies and are now hard-hit by the virus have said Trump helped seed suspicion about mask-wearing among his supporters.
Trump refused to wear a mask in public for months, despite his own administration’s guidance that face coverings help slow the spread of the virus. He has mocked presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for wearing one, held campaign events where facial coverings were not required, and told The Wall Street Journal in June that he believed some people wore them to show their disapproval of him.
Amid a summer spike in cases, Trump this month called on Americans to wear them, after donning one himself during a July 11 visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. On Monday, he tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask with the presidential seal, writing that “many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”
Anything that will encourage people to wear facial coverings — even if it’s making a mask that feels like a fashion statement for the anti-mask crowd — is a good thing, said David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. And every little bit of money that can be made in this pandemic-wrecked economy is important, he said.
The virus spreads through people’s breath, so the best ways to stop it are creating distance between people or using barriers, like face masks or shields, to physically stop the virus from transmitting from person to person, Aronoff said.
Aronoff said it is not entirely surprising that Americans have been resistant to wearing masks in public because “there’s this idea that if you’re wearing a mask, you’re sick or vulnerable.” But masks, he said, are effective.
“The reality is we really need people to buy into the idea that we can protect each other from this pandemic.”
There is mounting evidence that silent spreaders are fueling the transmission of the highly contagious coronavirus, making universal masking essential to slowing its spread, experts say. Aronoff said infected people can transmit the virus for days before symptoms begin, and even if they show no symptoms at all.
“Nobody wants to think of themselves as being infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, capable of killing somebody, especially when they feel normal and have zero symptoms of infection,” Aronoff said. “It is very hard for people to imagine that they could essentially be a lily pad for this virus hopping from person to person, but this is the absolute reality of the situation. Silent transmission events are fueling this pandemic.”
Back in Amarillo, Caple, 38, said he sells anywhere from 50 to 250 masks a day from the Trump Trailer, a rolling shop that was chilled on a recent sweaty Saturday by a swamp cooler standing in front of a Confederate flag affixed to the back wall.
With cases spiking in the Lone Star State, Gov. Greg Abbott in early July ordered Texans in all counties with more than 20 coronavirus cases to wear a mask in public.
In reality, though, it seems like “nobody in Texas is enforcing it,” said Caple, a father of nine who works as a painter when he’s not manning the Trump Trailer. Caple said the only problem he has run into is when he went into a local Toot’n Totum gas station maskless and was told to leave. He simply went to another Toot’n Totum a few blocks away, where it wasn’t an issue.
These days, even the cynics are gritting their teeth and buying masks — lots of them — because they’re now required in so many places, Caple said after handing a complimentary Pocket Constitution to a man with the words “We the People” tattooed on his right arm who had just bought a “Trumpinator” T-shirt.
“I think it’s pointless,” Caple said of the masks. “But as a salesman? I’m gonna sell them.”
Outside the Thunder-Rode motorcycle accessories shop on Route 66 in Kingman, Ariz., owner Jack Alexander displays a yellow sign touting “Kung-Flu Commie Virus Scamdemic Masks” that are “locally hand made” with “designer fabrics.” The president has used the phrase “kung flu” and other racist language in reference to the deadly virus.
Arizona has surpassed 152,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 3,000 people in the state have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. But Alexander contends that’s a small number in a state of 7.3 million people and that the odds are in his favor.
“The chances of me or anyone getting or dying from the commie virus scamdemic are microscopic,” he said.
Alexander won’t wear a face covering. But he sells a variety of cloth masks, ranging from about $5 to $15. He sews them himself, with double fabric layers, elastic ear bands or tie strings, and filter pockets “so you can put your coffee filter in there, or whatever.” He said he gives a quarter of each sale to a charity that benefits homeless veterans.
Asked why he sells masks when he doesn’t believe they work, Alexander said: “Demand.”
Alexander said he does not believe that facial coverings that are not hospital-grade masks fully filter out “coronavirus cooties” and that people’s immune systems are designed to fight illness. But people want them because they are increasingly required, he said.
“People are going to buy these stupid things anyway,” he said. “I personally would never wear one. I don’t want to re-breathe my bodily discharge.”
Alexander, who described Trump as a great president who “doesn’t take any bull crap,” said he had no issue with him now promoting mask-wearing — as long as it is his own preference and not being done to satisfy the media. Seeing the president in a mask, Alexander said, would not influence him to wear one himself.
In Southport, N.C., Mike Howard started selling masks from his screen-printing and graphic arts shop, Brandall, as a way to recoup some of the money he’s lost this year. He usually makes T-shirts and banners for big annual events, like the Fourth of July festival and a kids’ fishing tournament. But they all were moved online or canceled, dealing him a big financial blow.
North Carolina’s Democratic governor issued a statewide mask mandate last month. A few days later, Howard posted a black mask to his company’s Facebook page aimed at “those who don’t like masks” with the words “This Mask Is as Useless as Our Governor.”
Howard said he has sold quite a few, but some customers were offended. Frankly, he said, he’ll print anything on a mask or shirt if someone wants to buy it.
“In North Carolina, it’s a big debate … people feel so strongly about it on both sides of the aisle,” Howard said. “We try to stay neutral, but it’s hard. You don’t want to turn any of them down.”
Howard said he personally doesn’t mind wearing a mask. He usually opts for one with the mouth of John Finlay, who was featured in the Netflix series “Tiger King” as a longtime love interest of the former zookeeper known as Joe Exotic. (Finlay, who was missing front teeth in the show, has since had extensive dental work to get them fixed.)
“The more you can make the masks stand out, and the more funny they are,” he said, “the more likely somebody’s going to buy it.”
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