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Face covering fatigue: Some Sonoma County residents defy public health order to wear masks

On a recent shopping trip, Susan Froberg-Winters, 56, donned a paper face mask and lined up with the rest of the customers awaiting entrance to the Target department store on Santa Rosa Avenue. But once she got past the employee at the front entrance reminding shoppers to put on their face coverings, she slipped the mask from her face and went about perusing the aisles.

Despite a Sonoma County public health order requiring residents to wear face coverings before going inside buildings other than their homes, Froberg-Winters refuses to keep her mask on while shopping. She said that she has trouble breathing with her face covered and remains unconvinced wearing a mask actually helps contain the spread of the new coronavirus.

As a result, she said fellow shoppers often shoot her dirty looks. Others angrily confront her about not covering her face. Some even break out their cellphones to videotape her.

Now nearly two months since local and state officials, and retailers, adopted face covering requirements at the urging of public health experts, mask fatigue has emerged. Facing the prospect of wearing them many more months, divisions over masks have erupted into these kind of public confrontations, in Sonoma County and around the country.

Most Americans appear to support wearing face coverings, according to a survey of more than 22,000 people by researchers from Harvard, Northeastern and Rutgers universities. Three-quarters of U.S. residents say they somewhat or very closely follow government mask guidelines. That number is likely even higher in Sonoma County, where face coverings are required.

There’s evidence the support for face coverings may skew along partisan lines. According to the national survey, 83% of Democrats say they follow mask requirements, compared with 70% of Republicans.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone wear cloth face coverings in stores or public settings where social distancing of at least 6 feet isn’t possible, citing studies that people without symptoms can carry and spread the virus.

Pamela Morris, 70, a retired nurse in Petaluma, fears for her health when she sees people not wearing a mask. Because of her age, Morris worries about being at high risk of becoming severely ill if she contracts the virus.

Over Memorial Day weekend, when she passed a group of four people without masks gathered on the balcony of her apartment complex, she asked them to cover their faces. The group ignored her request.

“I’ve survived polio, the AIDS epidemic, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to die from someone passing on a flu virus to me,” Morris said. “I feel I’m safer in the grocery store than I am here, and that’s really sad."

Ron Trujillo, a spokesman with USA Properties Fund in Roseville, which owns Morris’s complex, said the developer encourages residents to wear masks “in all public spaces” but doesn’t have the authority to enforce mask-wearing rules.

For those like Froberg-Winters who decline to heed mask rules, their choice often becomes a kind of political statement against a perceived government overreach in response to the pandemic.

“Because I don’t believe in masks; they’re a symbol of compliance,” Froberg-Winters said.

Interestingly, the groups of people who have gathered on Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa and marched downtown for five nights protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis appear split between covering their faces while expressing themselves and going without masks.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said she has fielded numerous complaints about people defying mask rules and has heard what she described as very concerning stories. She pointed to a recent online video she saw of one person spitting onto another’s mask at the Safeway supermarket parking lot in Guerneville.

Although the majority of incidents in her west county district have been instigated by tourists from outside the area, Hopkins said, she has seen some local residents posting photos on social media of themselves proudly flouting face covering rules and pandemic restrictions.

“There are a handful of folks engaging in their own form of protest,” Hopkins said. “Unfortunately, that protest puts our community at risk.”

As a whole, Sonoma County residents appear to be complying with public health orders, which have no clear timeline for ending.

But there are signs some residents’ patience is wearing thin. On Tuesday, Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said she plans to allow another wave of businesses to reopen on Saturday as long as there’s not a spike of coronavirus cases in the community before then.

Lindann McPheeters, a mother of adult children in Santa Rosa, said she has trouble breathing in a mask. She pointed to conflicting messages from government officials about face coverings as a reason why she doesn’t think it’s necessary to wear one.

For instance, in the early days of the pandemic, officials including U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams encouraged people not to buy up masks needed for health workers, saying that masks were “not effective” in preventing the public from contracting the virus. Adams now supports widespread mask wearing following recommendations by the CDC in April.

“I feel like it’s so arbitrary,” McPheeters said of the mask requirements. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Instead of shopping at her neighborhood Trader Joe’s grocery store on Cleveland Avenue in Santa Rosa, where employees ask customers to cover their faces, McPheeters drives 45 minutes to another store location in Fairfield. In that city, face coverings are recommended but not mandated by Solano County. Kenya Friend-Daniel, a Trader Joe’s spokesperson, said in an email the company “strongly encourages” customers to wear masks in all of its store locations and asks them to put on a face covering if they’re in a state or county where doing so is required by a public health order.

In areas where local governments are asking residents to wear masks, Target has added signage and stationed employees outside stores to remind guests to wear masks while shopping, a company spokesperson said. Costco, a busy shopping destination in south Santa Rosa, follows a corporate policy requiring all shoppers to wear face coverings inside the warehouse store.

Alofa Laupua, 45, of Santa Rosa said he recently witnessed an irate shopper yell at a grocery store employee after being asked to comply with the local face covering mandate. Laupua plans to continue wearing his mask, even if it sometimes makes it difficult to breathe. For him, doing so has nothing to do with politics.

“It keeps us all safe, and I don’t want to get sick,” he said.

Up north in Lake County, countywide face-covering requirements have become an increasingly contentious issue for officials and residents alike. Lake County Supervisor E.J. Crandell said he’s received angry calls from residents on both sides of the issue. He’s also noticed a growing amount of partisan bickering on social media over masks.

“It’s because they’re watching the news - either Fox News or MSNBC,” said Crandell, who supports the county’s mask order. “It’s annoying both ways. It’s trite.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

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