Opinion

An Ocean Away, I Found Some Common Sense on Mask Wearing

BERLIN — You see it everywhere here in Germany, day in and day out: People taking the subway or bus or train put masks on as they prepare to board. And when they arrive at their stop or station and disembark, nearly all of them take the mask off, almost in unison.

For someone who arrived here after spending the first year and a quarter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, it is a remarkable sight: a communal, matter-of-fact approach to mitigation, turning what has become such an intensely charged symbol for Americans into a mere practicality.

This approach to masks and public transit is on display not only in cosmopolitan Berlin, but everywhere I’ve been in my reporting travels these past two months: I witnessed this effect in the eastern industrial city of Chemnitz, in the small western city of Erkelenz, and even in the rural eastern region of Lusatia, where the far-right Alternative for Germany Party, known here by its German initials as the AfD, had one of its strongest showings in the national elections last month. Mask on when you’re inside in the train or store; mask off when you’re out of it.

Throughout 2020 and the first part of 2021, I traveled across the United States reporting stories, and wondered why it was so hard for the country to arrive at a sensible middle ground on Covid-19 measures.

Even after public health experts had established the vastly lower risk of transmission outdoors, I watched local officials close playgrounds and swimming pools, leaving young people with fewer options for low-risk activity and social contact. That was (mostly) the blue states. In one red town I attended a crowded memorial service in a windowless church where precious few people were wearing masks, and many shared embraces as though the virus simply didn’t exist. All or nothing, nothing or all.

And I saw how these wildly conflicting responses were fueling a vicious cycle of ever wider divides in behavior, with corrosive political side effects. For someone who had been documenting the country’s growing political fissures for more than a decade, it was not hard to discern what was happening: Reports of Trump supporters refusing to wear masks in big-box stores or indoor campaign events seemed to make liberals more inclined to wear maskseven when outdoors with few people around; seeing mask wearing turned into a political statement, more partisan talisman than necessary tool, in turn made many conservatives less likely to mask up indoors when the circumstances justified it.

This was what Julia Marcus, a public-health researcher at Harvard Medical School, found when she interviewed mask skeptics last year: “They said they felt ridiculous wearing a mask when there are few people around, like outdoors or in a spacious store,” she wrote. “When I agreed that masking isn’t as important in certain settings, they became more amenable to wearing one when it matters most.” Overselling danger seemed, in other words, to have the opposite of the intended effect.

So it has been striking to be in a country where common-sense protocols generally prevail. It might be tempting to chalk up the uniformity of Germans’ behavior to their penchant for rule-following. This certainly helps explain why most Germans are observing requirements for masks on public transit or in stores, but it doesn’t really explain why — in contrast to what I witnessed in blue American cities — I have seen so few people going over and above the rules here, wearing masks outdoors or in other situations where they are not required.

No, it seems to me that the likelier explanation for the less polarized approach to virus mitigation behavior is that Germany is, well, much less polarized. Politics are so consensus-driven here that for the past eight years Germany has had a governing coalition consisting of the two largest parties.

And this tendency was reflected in the response to the coronavirus: The difference between the share of Germans on the ideological right and left who thought there should have been fewer restrictions on public activity was 20 percentage points, a Pew survey found early this summer. In the United States, the difference between right and left on that question was a whopping 45 points, by far the largest gap of any country surveyed by Pew.

This is not to say that Germany’s 83 million people are utterly free of disagreement on Covid. The rate of people with at least one vaccination shot — about 68 percent — is lower than that of many other European countries, barely ahead of the United States, and lower than that of many American cities with strict Covid requirements still in place. This is, in part, because Germany particularly lags on vaccinating teenagers, compared to other European Union members, but it is also a sign that the country has its share of dissenters. And there have been large protests against mask mandates, travel restrictions and the proliferating vaccine requirements for restaurants, sports events and other gatherings, a movement called Querdenker (essentially “against-the-grain thinkers”).

Notably, this movement has been more ideologically heterogenous than equivalent protest groups in the United States, with some left-leaning vaccine skeptics and people upset about nightclub closings in the mix. (This diversity may partly reflect the role of the police in enforcing masking and other Covid rules — on several occasions, I’ve seen armed officers reminding transit riders on the platform to mask up — which can scramble the lines of resistance).

To be sure, some of the anti-restriction rhetoric sounds similar to that in the United States — in Chemnitz, a supporter of the AfD who had come out to heckle the Green candidate for chancellor told me that “masks are humbug — they don’t help at all” and that mask mandates served no purpose other than keeping people scared. The very next day, the police in southwestern Germany arrested a 49-year-old man accused of fatally shooting a 20-year-old gas-station clerk who had told him to wear a mask in the shop. It was reportedly the country’s first instance of deadly violence apparently fueled by disputes over pandemic restrictions, a category of killing of which the United States has more than a half dozen examples.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are still some head-scratching restrictions here that challenge scientific guidance, such as the museums that have still disabled audio features on exhibits for fear of visitors touching the same headsets.

But German public health authorities seem to be making decisions with less concern than their American counterparts are about whether they will somehow abet right-wing narratives. For instance, requirements for proof of vaccination here in Germany can also be satisfied by showing that you’ve already had Covid, following the studies that have shown prior infection to provide strong protection. In the United States, public health officials seem to worry that anything validating anti-vaxxer claims about natural immunity will reduce vaccination rates. And education officials here speak much more freely about the downsides of masks in classrooms as they now start lifting school masking requirements.

The scene in Alexanderplatz in Berlin, a big public transit hub.Credit…Lena Mucha for The New York Times

The role of the media undoubtedly plays a role, as well — there are far, far fewer fear-stirring articles or segments in the national press or broadcast news here about, say, the potential risk that the coronavirus poses to children.

The overall effect is of an environment set at a lower temperature, far closer to normalcy, where the public space is not forever on the verge of flaring into a divisive battleground of signaling, judgments and resistance.

Meanwhile, the reports keep coming from what looks like an ever more inflamed landscape back home: incidents of resistance rage like the two people arrested at the Nashville airport in late August for refusing to wear masks on separate flights; officials in high-transmission areas barring mask mandates in schools while officials in low-transmission areas require schoolchildren (and college students) to wear masks even outdoors; a former Obama administration cabinet member comparing Americans opposed to mask requirements to the suicide bomber who killed about 170 Afghans and 13 American soldiers in Kabul. The middle ground seems more out of reach than ever.

One day during the just-concluded election season here, I went to see a Berlin campaign rally for Olaf Scholz, the chancellor candidate of the center-left Social Democrats and, it now appears, the likely successor to Angela Merkel. Mr. Scholz invoked the unity and sense of purpose that Germany had demonstrated during the pandemic as his model for bringing the country together to confront other challenges, such as climate change. “We saw in this corona crisis that we can hold together, that solidarity is possible in this country,” he said.

I couldn’t help thinking that the line seemed far more plausible here than if used in the United States.

A few weeks later, I went to a different campaign rally, for the far-right AfD in Lusatia. Hundreds of people gathered in a square in the small city of Görlitz to see the party’s two top national candidates. Nearby were gathered dozens of counterprotesters, with police officers on hand to keep the two groups separate.

None of the AfD supporters wore masks. Virtually all of the counterprotesters did, a rare incidence of outdoor mask wearing. Here, at last, in the most acute of political circumstances, was a stark Covid culture-war contrast. It felt almost like home.

Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica and a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, is the author of “Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America.”

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