For some, forgoing masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic has become a political statement

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As Texas inches away from its economic shutdown and people resume sharing public and sometimes confined spaces, the question of whether to wear a face mask has become a way to pick sides in what’s quickly becoming a coronavirus culture war.

The decision has led to everything from protests to the threat of criminal prosecutions and, at times, heated wars of words that have escalated to physical altercations. Mask arguments among Texans are happening everywhere from retail stores to the highest levels of government, frustrating public health experts who say masks help slow the spread of the virus.

The disagreements come as more and more businesses in Texas are allowed to open — with state officials trying to strike a balance between further economic devastation and thwarting the virus’ spread. On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that the state was entering its second reopening phase, immediately opening child care facilities, while allowing bars to reopen at limited capacity later in the week and promising a return of sporting events — sans in-person spectators — by the end of the month. Some establishments, like gyms, restaurants and movie theaters, were already allowed to open at limited capacity.

In this phase of reopening, masks remain optional. Some local jurisdictions issued mask mandates last month, but in an executive order April 27, Abbott said municipalities can’t impose penalties on residents who violate rules about wearing masks in public.

“We strongly recommend that everyone wear a mask,” Abbott said. “However, it’s not a mandate. And we’ll make clear that no jurisdiction can impose any type of penalty or fine for anyone not wearing a mask.”

But without a statewide directive on personal protective gear, further efforts to flatten the curve have essentially amounted to a statewide experiment in cooperation, hinging on the individual decisions of millions.

Public health experts have advised the use of masks, especially in public spaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends the “use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus.”

But pushback has been strong.