Crowds gathered Tuesday afternoon in parking lots surrounding Huntsville Hospital. Parents and kids, grandparents and teens sat on tailgates and waited for a promised military flyover honoring hospital workers.

Few were wearing masks, but none were crowded together, keeping mostly to their cars.

James Styles of Huntsville leaned against the bumper of his van, the trunk open so that his grandkids could climb in and out. Styles wasn’t wearing a mask but said he “absolutely” wears one when he goes into grocery stores and other enclosed areas.

“They say it doesn’t help a lot, but I figure anything is a help,” he said. He and his wife keep wipes and sanitizer with them any time they go out, he said.

He used to see more people in the grocery store wearing masks too, he said, but “not as many in the past day or so, which kind of bothers me. It’s like there’s a feeling (coronavirus) is going away, but I’m afraid there could be another bout.”

As Alabama slowly reopens after a weeks-long statewide shutdown, masks have become a recommended, though not required, part of daily life. The new statewide health order, announced Friday, “encourages” mask-wearing in public, while requiring it only for employees in certain close-contact businesses like hair salons, tattoo shops, restaurants and gyms.

But even the health order isn’t exhaustive. Around the state, many other businesses, workplaces and even the City of Birmingham have chosen to go further. Birmingham requires masks in public. Mobile debated doing the same, but dropped the idea.

In the end, the decision across much of Alabama is left up to each individual. And Alabamians appear divided over whether to comply. That division crosses political and cultural convictions about personal responsibility, the role of government and who to trust.

A mask, or the lack of one, signals to every person you encounter what you believe about the coronavirus.

Masks as politics?

It’s tempting to line up mask-wearing on a political spectrum, but that’s not entirely the case, said Dr. Matt Barnidge, assistant professor at the University of Alabama who specializes in the intersection of politics and media.

“Health and science issues don’t always map cleanly onto partisan divisions,” he said. “I do think there’s a certain politicization on mask-wearing at this point. But it’s not entirely a political thing and I don’t think it maps super cleanly on the partisan divide.”

Masks impact daily life in a way that few decisions do. And they impact individuals on a more personal level than death rates or public health orders. They’re uncomfortable physically and emotionally, a vivid sign that we aren’t living in normal times.

Politicians send a certain signal when they appear in public – or don’t – wearing a mask, Barnidge said.

“Any time a politician communicates through that kind of signaling or cuing,” he said, “it can trigger partisan responses based on who that politician is and which party they’re affiliated with.”

Gov. Kay Ivey has not worn a mask at any recent press conferences, though other members of her cabinet, including State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, have worn masks before stepping up to the podium to speak. On Friday, Ivey encouraged Alabamians to wear face coverings, saying that the coronavirus was still “active and it is deadly.”

Around the state, most Republican leaders have encouraged mask-wearing while stopping short of requiring it. State legislators wore masks when the Alabama Legislature reconvened this week. Alabama Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan tweeted a picture of Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican, wearing a mask.

Alabama House of Representatives
Members of the Alabama House of Representatives wear masks during their meeting on May 6, 2020. The House is passing local bills today and is expected to take up state budgets on Thursday. (Mike Cason/mcason@al.com)

In Mobile, Alabama’s latest coronavirus hotspot, city leaders backed away from requiring masks in public this week, even though Mobile County now has the state’s largest number of cases and deaths. The city council opted instead for a resolution “urging all citizens” to wear masks at businesses, which was supported by Mobile Mayor Randy Stimpson.

But it was a robust debate, with extreme warnings on both sides. “I do believe this virus will get worse and worse,” said Councilman Fred Richardson, who pushed for a mask requirement. Councilman John Williams said it comes down to personal choice. “There is a long list of things that we must protect ourselves from that government just simply cannot do.”

At the other end of the state, up in Huntsville, Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong gave his county a C when it comes to wearing masks and following public health recommendations.

“I believe that we need to do better,” he said at a press conference on Monday. “Probably 20% of the people are wearing masks when they go to the grocery store.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle appeared in a TikTok video to promote the city’s pro-mask social media campaign, #ShowYourCoverHSV.

Alabama’s largest and bluest city is the only one with a mask ordinance. The Birmingham City Council voted last week to require masks or face coverings in all public places for anyone age 2 and older. Failure to comply is punishable by a $500 fine or up to 30 days in municipal jail. Although, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall quickly muddied the waters when he sent a letter suggesting Birmingham shouldn’t enforce its mask rule.

Business decisions

Fleet Feet, a sporting goods store in Huntsville, was busy Tuesday, its second day open since the statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses was lifted last week. Store employees wore masks and all customers were required to wear a mask upon entering. The store provides a mask to those who don’t have one.

“We haven’t had any customer not want to wear a mask,” said Suzanne Taylor, who owns the store with her husband. Monday, the store served around 80 customers, she said, about half of whom arrived wearing masks.

Sanitizing stations dotted the store, while bright blue circles on the ground reminded customers where to safely stand while maintaining a six-foot distance from others.

One customer told an employee that everything felt different but that he didn’t mind, Taylor said.

For most businesses, masks aren’t about politics; they’re a smart business decision. Requiring employees or customers to wear them is one way to show customers it’s safe to shop again.

As stores gradually reopen around the state, their health and safety measures could determine whether they’re able to remain open. Even a barber in Mobile wore a face covering when attempting to reopen against the state health order last month.

“It’s a hard decision to open, so we wanted to be as vigilant as possible,” said Taylor. After her store closed on March 16, she said, even offering curbside pickup of products didn’t prevent a 75% loss of revenue over the following weeks.

“I think it’s going to become the new normal,” said Taylor of the increased safety measures. “If we do this now, we hopefully prevent (an increase in infection) from happening in the future.”

Fleet Feet coronavirus
Employees at Fleet Feet, a sporting goods store in Huntsville, Ala., wear masks on the second day the store was open after Alabama allowed businesses to begin reopening. The store also asks customers to wear masks while inside, and provides masks to those who don’t have them. (Anna Claire Vollers / avollers@AL.com)

Mixed messages

Mixed messages early on from public health officials about whether masks helpprevent transmission of coronavirus have clouded the public perception about how useful masks are in curbing infections. Initially, most public health officials discouraged mask-wearing, but in April the CDC issued recommendationsabout wearing cloth face coverings.

“It’s an uncertain time, so it’s hard to know what information to trust, what’s valid,” said Barnidge. “On top of that, the official wisdom seems to change.”

Course corrections on a national level may have created the space for political interpretations.

“Where you fall on the political spectrum will likely dictate how much patience you have with (safety) measures,” said Dr. Ryan Williamson, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Auburn University.

“It’s not necessarily an argument about right or wrong,” said Williamson. “It’s about what needs to be prioritized. We see Democrats saying we need to prioritize healthcare, whereas Republicans say healthcare is important but we don’t want to overburden the government with this expense and don’t want to damage the economy.”

He believes opinions on coronavirus response – including mask-wearing – will become more politically polarized as the months wear on.

“The people protesting these measures are a small subset, but as the quarantining gets longer, as the death toll goes up, people are going to increasingly say, we’re staying at home and people are still dying; should I really stay at home when I have bills to pay?”

Fewer precautions

Tiatianna White stood along Whitesburg Drive with her son, waiting for the military flyover.

She has to wear a mask for her job at Burger King, and said it bothers her when she sees people not wearing them.

“I wear them whenever I’m out shopping,” she said.

She’d just come from Hobby Lobby, where she estimated only about 50% of customers were wearing masks. “We had our masks on, but half the people there didn’t,” she said “I’d say they weren’t being cautious.

“I do wish there was a better way to protect yourself when you go out.”