For many free-spirited Americans, a face mask may feel like an uncomfortable blot on personal expression. But as states slowly begin to ease coronavirus restrictions, some medical experts are trying to put a happier face on those coverings -- touting them as a symbol of kindness and a tool in the effort to slow viral spread.
"It is really part of our social contract," said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at Johns Hopkins University. "It's an act that we're doing to protect other people."
Using masks as an everyday accessory has not come quickly or easily for the nation. Almost from day one, masks have been pushing political buttons.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi sought to lend some old-fashioned machismo to the cloth covering this week.
"Real men wear masks," she declared in her weekly news conference on Thursday.
But on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Donald Trump seemed to think there was something un-manly about the masks. Even as his own federal health officials began strongly advising their use, he has resisted appearing in public wearing one.
"I didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it," he said recently after appearing at a Detroit auto factory without one before cameras. He reportedly wore one on a private tour of the facility, where masks are required.
There have been signs the face coverings could be turning into another reason for skirmish in the nation's ongoing culture war, with conservatives like Louisiana Republican Clay Higgins among a small group from Congress resisting the accessory. Higgins went on CNN recently to declare the masks a form of "dehumanization."
"Can you smell through that mask?" he asked. "Then you're not stopping any sort of a virus."
But medical experts have been increasingly vocal in their confidence that face coverings do play an important role, along with social distancing and frequent hand-washing, in keeping the coronavirus from surging across communities.
One new peer-reviewed research paper from the journal of the National Academy of Sciences reported that decisions about mandatory face coverings are central to mitigating the pandemic's impact.
With respiratory droplets being "the dominant route" for the spread of COVID-19, the researchers found that using masks "significantly reduces the number of infections."
The scientists note that other mitigation measures along, even social distancing, "are insufficient by themselves in protecting the public."
Another study, published by The Lancet medical journal earlier this month, also found that masks, in combination with social distancing and hand-washing, could help control the virus's spread.
Maragakis said she doesn't believe the material used to make the face covering is as important as keeping airborne droplets from spreading.
"If you have a cloth mask that you've made, or that was made for you, if you've taken a bandana or something to put over your face, that's going to serve that purpose of catching the respiratory droplets," she said.
Even among scientists, though, there is not uniform agreement on benefits of masks and what kinds of masks make a difference.
There is a small faction of infectious disease experts who don't believe there's sufficient data to support the mask wearing as a mandatory complement to social distancing. Dr. Amesh Adalja, of the Infectious Disease Society of America, told ABC News he has yet to see "a lot of direct evidence" to support the recommendation -- especially when those coverings are homemade.
Adalja cited New Zealand, where viral spread has largely dissipated, as a place where the infection was controlled without widespread use of masks.
"I think it's there's a lot of back and forth on this that's going on in a debate in the scientific and medical community," Adalji said. "If you can social distance then technically you don't necessarily need a mask."
Whether scientists can prevent masks from becoming prey in the culture wars remains to be seen. Dr. Jay Bhatt, former medical chief at the American Hospital Association and an ABC News contributor, said he is hoping people from all political persuasions will decide that masks make sense in the midst of this crisis.
"Wearing masks once you step outside your home is a way to keep you, your family and America safe," Bhatt said.
Scientists try to keep coronavirus masks from being swallowed by culture wars originally appeared on abcnews.go.com