Radical group “Hugs Over Masks” spreads lies and COVID-19 in Westminster

Participants gather at the Westminster Community Pond (Molly Sherman / McDaniel Free Press).

Every Saturday, Carroll County locals gather at the Westminster Community Pond to champion scientific illiteracy under the guise of the organization Hugs Over Masks. 

Kate Dobson, Ph.D., a rhetoric professor who studies how groups use persuasive language to describe their actions, described the gathering as “a likely super spreader event – spreading falsehoods as well as risk of additional COVID contagion.”  

Hugs Over Masks claims to be leading a “truth education campaign,” committed to unraveling the medical consensus perpetuated in public health organizations’ advisories and enforced through law enforcement.

Attendees sit, playing music and chatting while offering pamphlets to the curious passerby, containing information attesting to the health risks associated with wearing masks and the violations of personal liberties. 

The provided pamphlet claims wearing a mask increases respiratory infections, citing a study published by the National Institute of Health. The study did a comparison of cloth and medical masks. In the pamphlet they created, Hugs Over Masks claims that “wearing a cloth mask significantly increases the risk of flu-like illness.” 

Their reference to the research does not account for the comparison-based nature of the study that regards the effectiveness of different mask types. The text that loosely mirrors what the pamphlet cited it for states that cloth masks were simply less effective than medical masks in reducing the rate of respiratory infection. It did not conclude that masks were responsible for infection transmission and in fact just made a recommendation to use medical masks over cloth ones. 

It seems that cherry picking scientific information and interpreting it into a context that supports their views is at the basis of Hugs Over Masks propaganda. The organization claims to provide the truth by isolating information that reinforces their position.  

The pamphlet continues this pursuit, broadly stating that mask usage causes stress, anxiety, stigma, marginalization, and higher suicide rates as some of the negative consequences of COVID-19 interventions. This information seems to correlate mental well-being, amidst widespread economic devastation and hundreds of thousands of Americans dying, with wearing face coverings. 

They write that mask usage promotes bullying of those not wearing masks and impairs social development, as children cannot see facial expressions. While this may be truthful, what may deepen their concerns surrounding social well-being and development is the high-risk nature of attending schools resulting from anti-maskers refusing to do their part to bolster public health. It is difficult for children to socialize and develop when attending school is life threatening due to the inability of selfish individuals to adequately comply with public health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19. 

Intermixed with misrepresentations of published studies were legitimate concerns about the proper balance of health protections and personal liberties. The intended purpose behind the formation of Hugs Over Masks is to pursue the restoration of civil liberties, democracy, and ‘way of life,’ as noted on their website.

They claim that “any attempt by a Governor to suspend Constitutional rights is an act of lawlessness and a violation of his/her oath of office.” They raise genuine concerns, though legal scholars across the county indicate that no governor acting in the interests of protecting public health has violated the powers entrusted to them.

“In a nutshell, refusing a mask, a shot or any other kind of medical treatment is our right as human beings,” wrote Rob Dahl, co-organizer of the Westminster event, in correspondence with me over Facebook Messenger. To support this argument, Hugs Over Masks quotes several paragraphs from the original U.S. constitution. 

Brash quoting of the over 200 year old constitution misrepresents the reality of how our government and society function. 1,000s of laws have been passed to protect public and personal safety; from seat belts to speed limits to infectious disease immunizations. The constitution is a living document that has been and will continue to be amended as technology, culture, and human needs evolve over time. 

“As citizens, we were never given a chance to process this sudden change and have an appropriate involvement in their legislation,” wrote Dahl.

I would venture that the world stands in solidarity over the lack of time afforded to civilians to prepare for a pandemic. Ironically, we may have been afforded more time had the public committed to following public health advising instead of questioning scientific consensus.

“We’re in this park prominently displaying normality,” wrote Dahl, “first and foremost. Our actions say “Remember what normal is? Let’s not lose this.”’ 

While there is almost certainly universal desire for normalcy, the reality is, in the United States alone 200,000 Americans have died. This is no longer a matter of what suits our individual desire for normalcy. We are already losing by continuing to let this virus tear apart our country. 

“For me, being out there, hugging openly in public, shaking hands, and not wearing masks, essentially demonstrates the lack of fear we have,” wrote Dahl.

The group saw its event as an innocent gathering calling back on the nostalgia of yesterday, however; its main function was to spread misinformation and – due to the unfortunate absence of masks and social distancing – they risked spreading COVID as well. The misinformation being transmitted through the Hugs Over Masks movement, coupled with the public display of breaking public health recommendations, has a viral quality, especially among people with a lesser grasp of scientific studies. 

A lot of work goes into Hugs Over Masks to craft and promote these positions. One can’t help but admire their rationalization. But advocating for personal liberty while others are suffering and dying is misguided. Promoting information to uphold the selfish views of one does not contribute to the life and liberty of all, it diminishes the value of human life and collective responsibility of community.

Instead of acknowledging the credibility of our elected officials and our top scientists and allowing them to guide us through a challenging and unpredictable pandemic, movements like Hugs Over Masks have taken the education of millions of vulnerable Americans into their incompetent hands, distributing misinterpreted science and propaganda to the benefit of only themselves.