Why Some Nebraskans Aren’t Wearing Masks
Published for NET News-Nebraska's NPR and PBS Station
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Nebraska’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise. More than 20 percent of hospital patients statewide are sick with the virus, and risk dials are at a record high level. But as numbers surge, public health officials say many Nebraskans still aren’t taking key precautions, like wearing a mask.
On a sunny day outside the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Downtown Lincoln, and Nebraskans are waiting to take the stands at the NSAA Girls State Volleyball Championships. Kristi Bacon drove from Newcastle in Dixon County to watch her granddaughter play for the Bergan Lady Knights. Bacon said where she’s from, very few people wear masks.
“Well, our theory is we've been distanced from each other since day one,” Bacon said. “When you live in a small community, you're not more than likely around more than five people at a time. So we call it the fact that we've been social distancing since 1867, when Nebraska became a state.”
She calls herself a non-mask wearer and isn’t afraid of getting COVID-19. Bacon had three of her nieces and nephews and three of her grandkids contract the virus with mild symptoms.
Public health experts across the state are pleading with Nebraskans to wear masks, which are shown to reduce the risk of getting and transmitting COVID-19. A University of Kansas study found counties with mask mandates had a 50% less chance of spreading the virus compared to those without one.
While some cities, like Lincoln and Omaha, have enacted their own mandates, Governor Pete Ricketts has repeatedly refused to enact a statewide policy.
“I don’t think mask mandates are appropriate. I think that they breed resistance,” Ricketts said during his press conference Tuesday.
Jim Gorman is a 67-year-old retiree from the town of Eagle and sees where Ricketts is coming from. Gorman recently moved to Nebraska from Colorado, and likes that restrictions are more relaxed here.
“I understand that there's a balance between safety and independence,” Gorman said. “It's all right now just a little confusing. I don't want anybody to get sick, but at the same time, I don't want to unnecessarily be restricted.”
Dr. Julie Lanz, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK), hears that view from a lot of rural Nebraskans. Dr. Lanz lives in a rural community at Holdrege in Phelps County. She’s noticed people in small towns tend to think their risk of getting sick is lower, despite high rates of infections in several less populated areas like Scotts Bluff and Buffalo counties.
“I've heard a lot of other ones in my area,” she said. “So for example, people feel uncomfortable wearing them. They think the masks are moldy. They think they don't work. They think they're going to get sick anyway.”
In the case of COVID-19, she thinks a lack of clear information on how to stay safe in the early days led to misinformation on how masks work.
“One of the early reports from the CDC was to not wear masks and their goal was to save the masks for healthcare workers,” Dr. Lanz said. “I think, unfortunately, that had a negative effect in the later months because people thought, ‘Well, people aren't telling us to wear masks. So why should we bother wearing them now?”
Plus, she said the issue has become politicized. The Pew Research Center published a study on how Democrats and Republicans have starkly different views on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Whether you call them Republicans or Conservatives, they're a little more skeptical of wearing masks,” Dr. Lanz said. “When you have a state like Nebraska, that's largely republican, largely conservative, it's not a surprise that in these rural populations, people just don't want to wear masks.”
Dr. Brandon Leudtke, a biology professor at UNK, thinks President Trump’s track record of downplaying the virus and lack of mask wearing influences people’s view of the pandemic.
“When people in this area, I think, view that on mainstream media or even on social media sites, it kind of gives them that perception, ‘Well, it's not that bad,” he said.
Dr. Lanz also noticed many public health issues tend to become politicized, like mandatory seatbelt laws, speed limits, and smoking bans.
“It goes back to this idea of America and what makes our country so great is that spirit of individualism, freedom of choice,” she said. “We don't like our rights being infringed on for any reason. We will die for our rights.”
She said that includes the right to do what we want with our body, but that has a downside.
“We seem to value that freedom more than we value our lives. That's what makes America great, but it's also what's making these rates spike in our country,” Dr. Lanz said. “So you have to weigh the benefit of that freedom to do what you want with saving lives, and for some people, it's more about freedom.”
But, Dr. Leudtke said the desire for freedom is also making the COVID-19 situation in Nebraska worse.
“I think it's just one of our cultural things here that we are strong willed individuals here in the United States. And, nobody should be able to tell me what to do, when to do it, how to do it, because I have my own beliefs, whether they’re right or wrong,” Dr. Leudtke said.
He said the recent presidential election made masking a topic of debate. Given the state’s mostly conservative culture, he worries that Nebraskans wouldn’t listen to a national mask mandate from a new president.
“I think Nebraskans will be a lot more resistant to President-Elect Biden's mandates, just because that's just the attitude here that ‘My candidate lost. I'm not going to follow the orders of somebody I didn't support for President,” Dr. Leudtke said.
Politics aside, West Central District Health Department Director Shannon Vanderheiden thinks it’s important that people make their own decisions around staying safe, but the risky actions of a few can impact an entire community. She’s seeing that play out right now.
"We have a choice to make. We can be selfish or selfless,” she said. “I think it is critical that we make a choice to not only protect ourselves, but to protect those around us, so that we are doing our part to prevent the spread."
Vanderheiden said until Nebraskans are willing to choose safety, people across the state will continue to get sick.