“Mask off at the door” policies undermine our rights as disabled people
“Mask off at the door” policies undermine our rights as disabled people
In early March, as the third anniversary of Covid-19 passed unnoticed by many, comments by New York City Mayor Eric Adams rang out like an ominous warning, signaling further erosion of our few remaining pandemic protections. “We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops,” Adams said in a radio interview with 1010 WINS, “Do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask.” In follow up questions by journalists, Adams said that masks were not banned in stores but that he was recommending stores make showing your face on camera a requirement for entry. He also indicated that he planned to coordinate with other Mayors nationally to reproduce this as part of a broader initiative to “tackle retail theft.” The mayor’s comments heralded one of the first concrete signs of what many disabled and immunocompromised people have feared was long coming: Could this be the beginning of the criminalization of masking in public places?
In the media frenzy that followed his initial remarks, Mayor Adams gave further comments to local reporters expanding upon what I’ve been calling his “mask off at the door” proposal. Adams explained that the goal of his proposal was to facilitate a process in which shop owners could better profile their customers. Violators who resisted mask removal or were uncomfortable with it, Adams explained, could act as a kind of early warning system for potential antisocial or criminal behavior. “Some of these characters going into stores that are wearing their mask, they’re not doing it because they’re afraid of the pandemic,” Adams said, “they’re doing it because they’re afraid of the police.” The Mayor’s proposal was echoed by NYPD Chief Jeffrey Maddrey who said “mask off at the door” policies should be thought of as “a peace offering” and “a sign of safety for store workers.”
It is ironic that this proposal has been framed as an issue of worker safety, as the implementation of “mask off at the door” policies, would not only put workers at increased risk due to increased exposure to Covid-19, it would also put them at increased risk of altercations with the public over the policy itself. In public appearances, Adams has explained that the point of the suggestion was to both intimidate alleged would-be-shoplifters and to provide police with security footage necessary for arrests: “We need to stop allowing them to exploit the safety of the pandemic by wearing masks, committing crimes.” As of this writing, Mayor Adams has yet to produce any satisfactory answers as to how exactly implementing “mask off at the door” policies would keep workers safer, instead trading on the false-panic that living through the ongoingness of Covid-19 has left our society broken and those who mask are seeking to exploit the pandemic for their own gain.
Such fear-mongering about a “crime wave,” or waves of “unstoppable” retail theft has been common throughout the pandemic, fueled by viral videos of “brazen daytime thefts” that have made the rounds on social media accompanied by statements from major retailers that blamed crime and theft for store closures (it turns out many already had been scheduled to close since 2019). It is important to note that this narrative of a massive wave of coordinated retail theft has been largely disproven, both by local, state and national crime statistics, as well as in earning reports and comments from retailers themselves. As Christopher Robbins reported for the NYC-focused, worker-owned publication Hell Gate, recent wide-spread media reports that retailers, especially in New York City, were victims of “Organized Retail Crime” seem to be mostly unfounded, and in an anonymous annual survey of retailers product losses were lower in 2021 than the five year average. The crime panic narrative is little but a distraction from the ongoing critiques of police budgets and behavior, organizing against the prison industrial complex, and against the ongoing pandemic we are pretending is over even as it still visibly rages on.
Most importantly, Adams’ suggestion would further deny disabled and immunocompromised people access to public space, economic participation, and social life, while fueling chains of transmission in the ongoing Covid pandemic. And at worst, it could lead to the criminalization of masking itself.
In our current moment, the Covid response (or lack thereof) is characterized by incoherence and abandonment as well as a marked antagonism towards those of us whose ongoing vulnerability breaks the suspension of disbelief, ruining the mirage that the pandemic is over.
In truth, “mask off at the door” policies won’t stop a crime wave (real or imagined)—they will, however, quite certainly deny disabled and high risk people further access to public life while adding to the burden of Covid cases in the community.
At the time of this writing, over half the U.S. population lives in an area with substantial or high transmission of the virus. It is important to keep in mind that our current picture of pandemic data is incomplete due to numerous factors including reduced access to testing, processing and reporting delays, structural barriers, and lax, or halted, state reporting. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) themselves stated in a recent update, there are numerous counties for which “COVID-19 Community Transmission metrics may be underestimated and should be interpreted with caution.”
By official counts we are still seeing hundreds of deaths a day, millions more are still experiencing debility and chronic illness due to long covid, and our hospitals are still struggling with capacity and meeting the basic needs of all patients—high risk or otherwise. And, as my Health Communism co-author, Artie Vierkant, and I wrote about for the April cover story of In These Times, the era of Covid-privatization is upon us; in the coming months we will see what little state-pandemic infrastructure remains be “thrown to the maw of the private market.” When the official declaration of a federal Public Health Emergency ends on May 11th (unless Congress succeeds in ending it sooner), exactly 1200 days from the day it was first declared, Covid testing coverage and cost-sharing will be left to insurance company discretion, further obscuring any kind of accurate measure of Covid’s ongoing spread. Worse yet, Medicaid expansion ended April 1, bringing with it a wave of eligibility redeterminations that will see up to 15 million people lose their coverage—as we argued on a recent episode of Death Panel, this is likely to be one of the most catastrophic events in the history of US healthcare.
In this context of ongoing, unmitigated spread, the biology and physics of what Adams is suggesting are pretty simple. Covid infections are caused by SARS-CoV-2 virus entering the body, when the seal of a mask is broken even for the simple moment required to lower a mask upon entry, airborne virus could have both entered the body’s mucus membranes and contaminated the inside of the mask. If all customers were to remove their masks at the entrance of stores, and then put them back on in the store, that would still slowly but surely increase the amount of virus in the air, making public spaces yet more inaccessible to disabled, medically vulnerable, or immunocompromised people—and exposing everyone to more SARS-CoV-2 virus without their knowledge or consent.
In this way, “mask off at the door” policies will further restrict access to public space directly for disabled, immunocompromised, and medically vulnerable/high risk people by making the risk much higher than necessary. But Covid is not just a risk to those at high risk, as many people who have had Covid in the last three years can personally attest to. This underlines the crucial importance of thinking through the pandemic from the perspective of disabled people—a fact that has been consistent (and consistently ignored) throughout the pandemic. Shoplifting and retail theft are not more important than the largest public health crisis many of us have ever lived through. Masking does not need to be perfectly adhered to or universally enforced to be effective, a simple rule to remember is that more mask wearing = less virus in the air. And, less virus in the air = fewer chains of transmission. That is what our pandemic response needs to aim for, and that is the opposite of what Adams’ “mask off at the door” proposal accomplishes.
Not to mention the fact that Adams’ “mask off at the door” proposal directly contradicts messaging both by the CDC and the city and state of New York to vulnerable people about their ability, and requirement, to simply protect themselves in the face of such abandonment. As disabled movement journalist and abolitionist Reina Sultan wrote of the Mayor’s remarks, “…it’s frustrating that [New York City] is simultaneously saying: ‘we won’t require masks even on MTA [or in] healthcare settings, but nothing’s stopping you from wearing your mask, sickie!’ And, ‘Take your mask off, we want to surveil you better.’ So which is it?”
It’s worth also noting that though “one way masking works” has become a common refrain throughout the pandemic, there is no evidence for this claim, while there is clear evidence that it contributes to making society inaccessible for high risk people and those wishing to avoid infection or participation in chains of infection. As public health researcher Abdullah Shihipar wrote last year in Slate, one-way masking seemed good on paper but was an alluring false promise that in practice made society much less safe for high risk people. “The strategy sounds like a way to keep everyone happy,” Shihipar explains, “Unfortunately, …one-way masking places the burden entirely on the most vulnerable among us.” In truth, it is up to us to keep each other safe. The fewer people who mask around you, the harder your mask has to work, and the more important it is that your mask be perfectly sealed and clean of virus on the inside. It’s time again to not just mask for ourselves but for each other, even when it’s uncomfortable or inconvenient to do so. It’s not too late to return to models of thinking through safety based on community care and interdependence.
This is not the first time we’ve seen the roll-back of Covid protections result in denial of social rights for disabled, high risk, and immunocompromised people. One-way masking, the end of mask mandates in healthcare settings, on transportation, and in schools have all done similar harm, gradually eroding the social rights that disabled people fought and died to win in the United States for over 50 years.
Social rights are a particular and curious category of rights. These rights are highly variable and subject to a constantly shifting series of pressures which shape who is included in the body politic and how. Sociologist John Marshall, working in the 1950s, theorized “social rights” as stemming from an individual’s real-time access to society. Under capitalism, economic participation is what grants individuals access to and inclusion within society, and the social life which comes with it.
If our membership in society is predicated on our ability to economically participate, then Adams’ suggestion, which would make economic participation yet that much harder for high risk, disabled, poor, immunocompromised, and medically vulnerable people, is a textbook example of the denial of social rights stemming from an ignorance of and lack of interest in a society in which vulnerable people not only exist, but are supported and can flourish.
Many disabled people may be most familiar with the concept of social rights through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is a legal and administrative framework for granting disabled people these rights: one of the ADA’s primary goals is greater accessibility in society through increasing disability inclusion via employment. As political scientist Nancy J. Hirschmann has argued, Marshall’s work on social rights, while not disability specific, was a major influence on U.S. narratives regarding who deserves to be a part of the We in “We the people.” This is not to say that the best way to make society accessible to all is through economic inclusion and participation—rather it is to say that our society is set up such that inclusion is predicated on economic participation, and disabled people are denied access to many of the potential “pathways to inclusion.” Our social rights as a result become categorically inaccessible. Covid-19 has seen the slow wins made in this arena by the disability rights movement, and by current movements for Disability Justice, slowly eroded.
The forced-ending of the emergency state of exception, what we’ve been calling on Death Panel podcast the “sociological production of the end of the pandemic,” has been driven by a shift from thinking through the pandemic in terms of risk at the population level to a hyper-individuated lens which presents a mirage of fully-customizable “choose your own risk.” But what a disaster like Covid teaches us is that no one’s health is ever theirs alone: We are interdependent, and our pandemic response is a failure as a direct result of our denial and refusal to accept this bare minimum fact. In her January 2022 essay, You Are Not Entitled To Our Deaths, Mia Mingus warned of how this hyper-individuated narrative of customizable risk was falsely pitting, “state and systemic change against individual and community change.” As Mingus noted, “Both are necessary to get out of the pandemic mess we are in, just as both are necessary for any kind of liberation we are fighting for.”
To echo Mingus, we need all of us. Care for one another is a political act, and it’s not too late to return to a pandemic response that is based on shared values of safety, respect, collective responsibility, and liberation. As Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes, it was not too long ago that many of us shared a revolutionary dream, “of a world where community care, mutual aid for collective survival and a refusal to obey are not just possible, they make up the bones of the new world.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has been consistently characterized by what abolitionist and liberation geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “organized abandonment”—which is an idea helpful in describing “…the way that people, households, communities, neighborhoods do not have equal levels of support and protection against the pandemic.” When populations are abandoned, not only by the state but also by capital, the response leverages policing and criminalization as a means of resolving the problems of abandonment.
As I have written in the past about other pandemic era retrenchments of social rights for the vulnerable: “It is a conversation about the value that our society wishes to place in protecting each other from sickness, about the value of recognizing or rejecting our interdependence, and about the worth of the people whose suffering may soon be minimized as ‘deaths pulled from the future’ or merely the ‘cost’ of reopening.” We are seeing in Adams’ “mask off at the door” suggestions an overt and obvious demonstration that protecting the right to mask needs to be a serious priority of our movements and demands going forward. Groups like Mandate Masks NY, Massachusetts Coalition for Health Equity, Covid Safe Campus, and Senior and Disability Action are already organizing around this, as are many groups across the country.
As disabled people, we have a right to society codified into law which, regardless of what we think about the law, is being violated. Now is the time to make sure that everyone knows that the slow erosion of the very recent norms which have allowed us to mask not only represent a rejection of the vulnerable from society, but actively is undoing the narrow claim to the rights we have based only on our economic worth and participation. As many of us already know from years of navigating a system which treats you as worthless if you’re seen as an “economic burden,” and as many have newly learned throughout the pandemic, economic rights are not enough. But they are what we have for now, and one step toward building a better world, where we do not accept the economic valuation of life, is resisting the erosion of these basic social rights occurring all around us in our prematurely unwinding pandemic response.
Disabled people have decades of knowledge and expertise at finding ways to both leverage social rights to our advantage and not let them define us. We know how to think through complex problems where we must balance the harms of existing systems we need to access now, with our desires for fundamentally different systems of mutual care and interdependence. We must never stop reminding ourselves and others that every broken chain of transmission matters. As organizer Becca E. said to me in a recent interview for Death Panel about the challenges of organizing in a society that devalues and discourages Covid protections: “the only way that we can even form a sort of collective resistance is to start where we’re at … every person that doesn’t get sick, that doesn’t lose that week of work, or doesn’t become disabled or die, from the minor-est of inconveniences to the greatest of losses, every single one of those things is valuable … even if that in itself is not enough to topple the whole problem, topple the whole regime, because you’re creating these little islands of safety. And the more of those islands of safety there are, the more that they interconnect and form a web of resilience.”
The bottom line is that in our current moment, Covid is still very much a problem—for everyone, but especially for high risk people. When so many universal pandemic protections have been abandoned for “you do you” individual protections, “mask-off at the door” policies deny disabled and immunocompromised people their social rights (access to public space, economic participation, and social life), all while fueling chains of transmission in the ongoing Covid pandemic. Mayor Adams’ comments, in one ignorant swoop, both feed a manufactured crime panic narrative and further abandon high risk New Yorkers. Rhetoric which frames the risk of shoplifting as greater than that of Covid only benefits the budget priorities of the NYPD, at the risk of our collective public health and mutual survival, thus further extending the harm police already leverage on our communities toward undermining decades of organizing by disabled people.
Beatrice Adler-Bolton is a blind/low vision and chronically ill writer and independent researcher. She is the co-host of the Death Panel podcast about the political economy of health, and co-author of the book Health Communism (Verso, 2022).
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