Payson’s Mayor Tom Morrissey on Sept. 21 revoked a Payson mask mandate — although the county health department still urges everyone to practice social distancing and wear masks in public.

Morrissey’s new proclamation recommends mask wearing, but does not require it.

This places Payson smack dab in the middle of a national debate on whether masks make a difference in the transmission of the coronavirus, although the Payson Police Department never enforced the rule even when the emergency rule remained in effect.

Gila County is one of four counties in the state that doesn’t yet meet the state’s advisory guidelines for the phased reopening of schools or high-risk businesses, like bars and gyms.

The near-universal advice by epidemiologists that people wear masks in public when they can’t practice social distancing has proved a perhaps surprising, highly politicized flashpoint in the pandemic debate.

Those with a “don’t tread on me” attitude have repeatedly clashed with those who follow the recommendations of researchers, who say studies show properly worn masks dramatically reduce the transmission of the virus.

Payson Police Chief Ron Tischer has never directed officers to enforce the mask mandate, preferring to stress voluntary compliance due to a lack of resources. Mask use in Payson has fluctuated, rarely reaching even the levels of mask wearing in Phoenix stores.

Politicians and social media have inflamed the issue, often spreading false claims or misinformation.

Researchers have extensively studied the impact of wearing masks in the nine months since the pandemic emerged. The U.S. Surgeon General initially advised people not to rush out and buy masks, which were in short supply and needed by doctors and nurses. Since then, studies have demonstrated that masks — in combination with social distancing and avoiding crowds — remain the best way to slow the spread of the virus.

The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control recently testified before Congress that masks may work better than a vaccine if widely used.

However, politicians and social media messages have spread confusion about the value of masks.

When the CDC asked U.S. citizens to not rush out to buy masks, it was hoping to ensure an adequate supply for health care workers. Later, the CDC did an about face and recommended masks.

Local officials have done their best to keep up with the developing research and recommendations, but misinformation has in many cases spread much faster — including unfounded claims that masks can’t slow the spread of viral particles and concerns that rebreathing air from behind a mask might increase infection rates.

As the pandemic shut down the world economy and changed human interaction in a few months, researchers have scrambled to understand how the virus spreads. A growing mountain of studies has shown that the virus spreads mostly on the breath in close quarters. Most research suggests the major form of transmission comes in droplets, which masks mostly stop. Some research also suggests the virus can become aerosolized, which means it spreads through much smaller particles that can float on the air even after someone leaves the room. Masks can reduce the odds of transmission by these much smaller particles, but not as effectively as the droplets.

Scientists now believe that virus particles that can survive on surfaces for hours probably play a relatively minor role in infection.

Researchers have found that “super spreaders” can play a key role in the infection’s spread for reasons not clearly understood. However, the super-spreader events almost always involve lots of people sharing air, almost always without wearing masks. That research led to the extra restrictions on bars, gyms and crowd-creating events.

In both laboratories and in real life examples, the research indicates spending time in an enclosed environment for an extended period without a mask allows the virus droplets to float around the room encased in a molecule of moisture expelled on the breath.

In an article published in Nature, researchers found RNA markers for the virus in aerosol particles released after loud talking without a mask. Researchers calculated that after one minute of loud speaking, 1,000 small, virus laden aerosols 4 micrometers in diameter remained airborne for at least eight minutes.

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(1) comment

James Wise

I really cannot adequately express how impressed I have been with the Payson Roundup's reporting. I can think of a dozen fair-minded, cogent, thought-provoking articles on topics of real importance in the last year. Thank you. They were the kind of articles which can be the basis for honest community discussion . They were the kind of articles that can inform meaningful, positive actions. Why do you bother?

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