Ntension owner Scott Biehn talks about how the Hermon company shifted its production to masks and face shields to help produce protective equipment during the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

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America’s top doctor continues to encourage people to wear a face covering to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. Those who want to continue reopening businesses and resuming more normal activities, balancing speed and safety, should listen. 

“Some feel face coverings infringe on their freedom of choice — but if more wear them, we’ll have more freedom to go out,” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in a Twitter post on Sunday, which included a photo of him wearing a mask. “Face coverings [lead to] less asymptomatic viral spread [which leads to] more places open, and sooner! Exercise and promote your freedom by choosing to wear a face covering!”

To be clear, Maine Gov. Janet Mills has issued an executive order requiring face coverings be worn “in public settings where other physical distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” So in many instances here in Maine, masks are at least in theory a requirement and not a choice. But as anyone who has been to a store or waited in line to pick up takeout has probably observed recently, plenty of people are still choosing not to wear masks in close public settings. 

Often, this decision seems to be made by people who say they want the freedom to return to normal — or at least closer to normal. As Adams’ tweet demonstrates, that is counterproductive. 

Studies increasingly show that face coverings, coupled with other social distancing measures and good hygiene practices like frequent hand washing, can be key to helping limit the spread of the virus. Yet this evidence has been swept up in the ongoing culture war against expertise, as if listening to and assessing the advice of medical doctors and researchers with years of training is somehow a weakness. 

Some of the replies to Adams’ tweet are telling, if unsurprising. People who wear masks are called “sheep.” Adams is reminded that he and other public health officials were saying in March that masks were not needed for the general public, and that they should be conserved for use by health care workers. The shift in guidance isn’t some conspiracy or sign of ineptitude, it’s a reflection of how resources and the understanding of COVID-19 has evolved over time — and how people need to evolve with those realities. 

“Lots of strong feelings all around. Ultimately it is a choice we make, and I hope it’s made based on the best available/current science, and a desire to do all we can to help others and ourselves/our communities,” Adams, an appointee of President Donald Trump, responded. “Like vaccines, the more who participate, the greater the impact.”

In an ongoing war against an invisible enemy, as Trump has termed it, the aversion to masks seems a very strange hill to die — or at least risk more infection — on. The surgeon general is essentially telling us that face coverings are an important (and easily made) weapon in this fight. Why disarm ourselves? Regardless of whether you think the state should be speeding up (or even scrapping entirely) its timeline for different types of business to resume operations, there should be little doubt that widespread mask use can help resume those operations safer, quicker and with greater consumer confidence. 

We don’t want to wear masks in public, either. They’re annoying, stifling and make normal human interactions feel impersonal. But wearing masks in public now, particularly indoors or in large crowds — including in line outside of stores, during protests and at presidential rallies — is one step we all can take to help accelerate the timeline for relaxing COVID-19 public health measures. 

That’s not submitting to the virus or to fear; it’s identifying and utilizing a strategy that helps us win together.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...