AMC Entertainment, the movie theater chain, flip-flopped on the pandemic last week, first saying its customers wouldn’t be required to wear masks, then saying they would. It’s hard to blame the company given the Trump administration’s, and the president’s own, scattered, inconsistent and flat-out wrong messaging. Still, if the United States is going to beat the coronavirus and revive its economy, the private sector — including airlines, restaurants, retail establishments and entertainment companies — needs to step up.
AMC’s first move was to say it wouldn’t adopt any mask requirement at its cinemas — even though masks are proven to impede spread of the coronavirus — because it wanted to avoid being “drawn into a political controversy.” Facing a social media backlash, it reversed course the next day, saying it’s “crucial that we listen to our guests.”
That was the right outcome, but both statements missed the point: Covid-19 is not a “political controversy,” and combating it is not a matter of customer relations. It’s a public health crisis, and defeating it requires heeding public health experts. That means wearing masks in public; increased testing and tracing; and isolating people who become infected.
AMC’s flailing was a symptom of the country’s larger failure to unite against the pandemic. That is unsurprising given that President Trump, who ostentatiously refuses to wear a mask himself, is actively defying public health experts — holding his political rally in Tulsa last weekend inside an arena, subverting the importance of testing and saying that Americans who cover their faces do so to spite him.
In framing mask-wearing as a culture-war issue, Mr. Trump obscures and impugns what should be a straightforward and responsible act of personal protection and public hygiene.
The good news is that companies are starting to understand not only the research on mask-wearing but also the implications for their bottom line. U.S. airlines, whose recovery may be one barometer of the economy’s overall fortunes, have finally started to enforce a policy, announced in late April, requiring passengers to wear masks. For weeks, flight attendants were instructed not to confront passengers who flouted the policy. Now passengers are to be warned that defying the rule may get them banned from future flights.
That’s progress; it’s also a belated act of self-interest on the airlines’ part. Many people will not fly if they have to share a row with a fellow passenger whose face is uncovered — and for good reason: No one should be subjected to that risk. The administration has declined to take any regulatory steps toward requiring masks aboard flights; in the absence of federal action, airlines must get tough.
All Americans, and all businesses, want the country reopened. Mr. Trump has framed the issue falsely, as a choice between economic revival and public health. In fact, the goal is to reopen intelligently, without triggering a fresh tsunami of infections. That will require responsible decision-making by state and local leaders as well as companies and individuals. Wearing masks is an essential place to start.