Conservative talk radio hosts across the country are mocking the use of masks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, even in states like Arizona where cases are surging.
Masks are an essential tool in the effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Infected people are less likely to transmit the virus to others when wearing a mask, and while no mask can completely prevent inhalation of virus particles, even cloth masks provide some protection for healthy individuals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that Americans wear cloth face masks when interacting with people outside of their households.
Despite clear evidence demonstrating significant public health benefits, some in right-wing media have sought to undermine public support for mask wearing. On Fox, host Laura Ingraham has questioned the science behind masks, and fellow prime-time host Tucker Carlson has attacked public health officials and elected representatives over their mask guidance. Meanwhile, anti-mask posts on Facebook — many posted by right-wing media figures like Tomi Lahren — are racking up millions of interactions from users.
Conservative talk radio is no different. While some hosts have spoken positively about the potential benefits of masks, others have questioned their value and decried the supposed message wearing masks conveys. For instance, host Rush Limbaugh has previously referred to masks as “a required symbol on the left to promote fear.”
Now as cases are surging in a number of states, some local officials in places like Arizona have implemented mandatory-mask orders to help slow the spread. Yet these orders are being met with resistance from local radio hosts who have declared they will not be complying and have provided a platform for disgruntled callers and medical misinformation. The local focus of these hosts, combined with messaging from some nationally syndicated programs, threatens to undermine public support for mask wearing when it’s needed most.
Nationally syndicated hosts have mocked masks as a sign of “submission” and questioned their effectiveness
- On June 29, host Michael Savage claimed, “Masks are useless. They’re a mark of submission.” As evidence, he cited a piece by a doctor named Simone Gold in which she argues against mask mandates because cloth masks cannot completely block COVID-19, and because mandates infringe on individual liberties. Gold previously organized and sent a letter to President Donald Trump calling on him to end coronavirus lockdowns. Savage continued on to say parents are “abusing their children” when they require them to wear masks, calling the parents “stupid, compliant, societal goons.”
- Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka, host of America First with Sebastian Gorka, also claimed mask wearing is an “act of submission” during his June 23 show. Gorka mockingly referred to masks as “COVID burqas” and bragged about not wearing one in public.
- Texas-based host Michael Berry on June 29 declared that “the masks don’t work” and claimed mask guidelines are part of “irrational behaviors” resulting from fear of the virus. On June 22, Berry complained about a mask order instituted in Harris County, Texas, and argued, “If people actually believe that the mask keeps them safe, why do you think you have to issue an order to require it? Maybe people don’t believe that the mask is necessary.”
In Arizona, local hosts rejected mask orders designed to slow surging case numbers
Arizona has seen one of the worst surges in coronavirus case numbers in the country in the past month. On June 17, Gov. Doug Ducey finally allowed local officials to implement mandatory-mask orders after weeks of resistance. Cities like Phoenix passed these orders almost immediately, much to the dismay of some local radio hosts.
- On June 22, James T. Harris, host of The Conservative Circus with James T. Harris on Phoenix's KFYI-AM, complained about Ducey allowing local officials to implement mask orders and Mayor Kate Gallego announcing it for Phoenix. Harris argued, “President Trump could come out and say ‘James T. Harris, I want you to wear a mask,’ and I will say, ‘I appreciate you President Trump but I’m not going to wear a mask.’ … Won’t do it. Can’t do it because I don’t believe in it, Kate Gallego.”
- Harris has also promoted medical misinformation about masks on both his show and social media. On June 24, Harris interviewed Dr. Jane Hendricks who claimed masks lead to dangerous drops in oxygen. In reality, there’s no evidence that cloth and surgical masks can cause breathing problems for most people. Harris also tweeted on June 20 that masks will cause respiratory issues due to “breathing all the toxins our lungs filtered out and into our masks.” In fact, wearing masks does not increase inhalation of toxins.
- On KKNT, another station serving the Phoenix area, host Seth Leibsohn responded to the Phoenix mask order on June 19 by declaring, “I am just telling you right now, audience. I’m not doing it. Not doing it. I am not sick. … Seven tenths of 1% of our population has the virus. It radically can affect 15% of the population if they get it. I’m not wearing a mask and covering my face for that.”
- On June 24, Leibsohn spoke to a caller who attended what he described as an “unmask me rally” in Scottsdale. During the call, Leibsohn claimed that mask wearing is “pitting us against one another. It is creating its own form of civil war. … There’s a lot of problems that come from the orders that we’ve been forced to live under. A lot. And we are just beginning to scratch the surface of them. I believe they are a great deal more dangerous than the coronavirus.”
- On June 16, Mike Russell and Rob Hunter, hosts of Russell & Hunter on KFYI-AM, discussed a push for mandatory mask orders ahead of Ducey’s announcement that he would allow local officials to implement these orders. Hunter said mandatory-mask orders are useless because “those that are not going to follow the requirement know that it’s unconstitutional, know that you can’t do it, know that the masks aren’t effective. So what’s the point?”
- Two days later, Russell listed cities in Arizona that had implemented mandatory-mask orders and declared, “I am not wearing a mask. There. I’m a rebel.” Russell complained about cities quickly implementing mask orders following Ducey’s announcement, saying, “That’s lazy and that’s stupid. It’s reckless.” Hunter later claimed, “If you have a compromised immune system, … if you are breathing in your own air all the time, your carbon dioxide, it might actually make it worse. There’s actually studies that show that.” (In fact, wearing a cloth or surgical mask will not substantially increase carbon dioxide levels.)