Terry H. Schwadron

August 9, 2021

The face mask culture wars are getting worse, not better.

Whatever you think about the health-versus-liberty issues, as it is being framed, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican leaders are pawning off government’s public health issues to be a personal responsibility, sowing confusion and selling denial as snake oil.

Now, the courts are starting to get involved, and we can expect as many different individual judges to hand down rulings that either support masks or that support bans on masks as we have decisions. And, things clearly are falling to individual businesses, schools, nonprofits, hospitals and other local institutions to decide what they want to do about all of it in the face of national divisiveness.

What is emerging from politicians putting their sloganeering campaigns ahead of actual health concerns is that we face chaos in schools and businesses, a lot more coronavirus cases lasting a lot longer, and loud, disruptive shouting about it all rather than solutions. In the case of schools, of course, students under 12 cannot be vaccinated, and, ridiculously, we’re arguing about wearing a piece of cloth.

Indeed, in the approach that DeSantis is now typifying as he pursues why are we stopping only at facemasks and vaccines for coronavirus. For decades, schools both public and private have required a suite of vaccinations, and during that time, we’ve always had a minority of parents who declined.

At the same time, the federal government and governors have a host of public health issues that they never effectively seem to address with mandates, from gun deaths to obesity to specific diseases worsened by obesity or weak immunology to highway speeding.

Time is short for the start of a new school year, and the only certainties are in the fervor of protests for and against masks rather than assuring kids and teachers can safely be in school buildings. It is not inconsequential: A New York Times study this weekend showed a disproportionate number of the youngest students missed school last year over pandemic concerns, a fact that will come back to bite in the future.

The Wrong Direction
In the past week, we saw debates harden.

Florida is emerging as a hard-core center not only over ideology, but over rising coronavirus cases that are again overwhelming hospitals. Governor DeSantis is threatening to withhold funds from districts that breach his executive order against any bans on mask-wearing, and making taxpayer money available to parents who feel pressured by schools or other parents to wear masks to use in sending their kids to other schools. What? I’m going to pay for parents to stiff the local school rules to protect my own kid or grandkid?

Still, a few Florida districts are set to defy those orders, arguing that masks are needed to protect students at a time when the delta variant of the disease is surging.

DeSantis, clearly emerging as a presidential candidate, is unyielding in saying the disease is no big deal, and if it is, he points to the border where migrants are crossing illegally, unvaccinated, as a bigger cause than lack of good public health policy. DeSantis, again standing in for others, insists that individual parents can decide whether a pandemic is threatening to their child or family or community without interference from, say, science or medicine or any federal task force.

In Arkansas, where the Republican governor had signed, then rued signing a mask mandate, a judge temporarily blocked a new state law that prevents schools and other government agencies from mandating masks. There are many more legal challenges being launched from college campuses to small businesses affected by regional masking mandates.

Joe Biden ordered federal employees to vaccinate or face routine and constant coronavirus testing, businesses have started following suit, and New York City has announced that every business should have masks or vaccines by next month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal masking in all schools, has supported that businesses promote vaccines, but stayed short of any recommended mandated jabs.

Meanwhile, we see almost daily stories on the news about some guy who now regrets protesting vaccines and masks because he is in the hospital with coronavirus. We had hoped and expected the numbers to be dropping, not rising. And there is that woman who appears who notes that she is not seeing disease in her own neighborhood, so what’s the problem.

From listening in on the campaign-style blurbs and speeches of the dissenting governors, mayors and health leaders, what one comes away with is only that we are in a mess. As with climate or health care more generally or gun violence, we are dealing as much with denial as with the issues of mandated solutions.

Facing Our Issue

If coronavirus is the predominant issue facing America, we’d have to say we’re not handling it very well. The disease itself keeps changing, and our discussions about what to do run months late; our resolve as a community or nation falls to our need for individual convenience. We expect someone else to solve our problems, and we’re seemingly unwilling to take much responsibility for anything not directly in front of us.

None of us likes the ever-changing public messaging — we should be able to agree about that. None of us likes the disruption, job-threatening shutdowns, even the insistence on adaptation to Zoom culture. But, as sensible beings, we should be capable of applying common-sense solutions on a temporary basis to withstand a pandemic that kills.

But this is about fear of government over certainty of disease.

Insisting that we respond to a fatal disease of global proportion on an individual basis seems inane. Requiring that we have to take vaccines frankly should be unnecessary. But if we are hesitant for whatever reason, medical or political, to vaccines, it does not seem a sacrifice to wear a mask indoors in public places.

I don’t see vaccine/mask resisters offering to set up tutoring services or special set-aside restaurants or alternative service providers; rather there remains a desire to be served by the same public whom they snub.

Without thinking, we accept the idea that we need to wear shoes in stores, or that we cover our bodies with more than a bathing suit, or that we wait in line at checkout counters or a million other social conventions that we carry out without second thought. Mostly, we don’t make individual decisions about the rightness of highway lanes or of rules that require eyechart tests to be legally able to drive,

What we are seeing in our time is a rise in protest to a range of “requirements” from gun owner background checks to environmental rules to bathroom usage rules to health coverage that may include contraceptives — requirements that happen to fit conveniently with a politically conservative outlook.

Can we please ask ourselves — as individuals under no mandate — what it really means for public health questions to be left to individual parents, workers, business owners to decide?