Ripping Off Masks, Maybe
Terry H. Schwadron
May 17, 2021
So, we can go mask-less inside and out, if we’ve been fully vaccinated, only hang with friends who are vaccinated and don’t have clingy kids, who have not, or live in states with large numbers of ant-vaxxers, whom we know recognize only for their sharp opinions, since there are no rules about proving you’ve been jabbed.
Is that about right? Or unless you live in New York, where we do, where the governor, under battle for his own covid practices from last year, has yet to acknowledge that the Centers for Disease Control has changed the rules.
As it turns out, we ended up in this new stew of bureaucratic confusion because the decision by the CDC came as a rushed matter this week and without sufficient coordination to make what anyone would think a triumphant moment into a bit of a public relations splat.
The rollout of a new policy about masks oozed out of the CDC on a late Wednesday afternoon to some White House staff on the coronavirus team, but not to Joe Biden until the next morning. And it never really was coordinated among health, business, or transportation leaders until there was an announced policy that left most who have to lift mandates or stop various enforcement levels flat-footed.
And it left Republican Congress members who had feistily attacked CDC director Rochelle Walensky just on Tuesday cackling about the vast changes wrought by Science in a single 24-hour period. On Tuesday, Walensky repeated that we must stay the course with masks and physical distancing rules; on Wednesday, she had seen 700 pages of scientific analysis to make her comfortable changing her advice. Naturally, Republicans saw politics where the rest of us saw a the symbolic start for and to serious coronavirus contagion.
Why couldn’t Walensky have used the hearing to ask for bipartisan support around a policy that was about to pop in a day, a week, even a month?
Faint Hopes for Clarity
It is beyond us as a country to hope for clarity — even when one would think that we could agree on good news, for a change.
Instead, we’re fussing to resist any rules about proving vaccinations, even as there are news reports about a growing fraudulent business in producing faked records. There is heavy hesitance and resistance, even among the adults vaccinated, about vaccinating children, even as there are demands for open schools. And Republicans wasted little time on celebrating progress with Biden, instead choosing to lambast Biden for using the mask announcement to cover for what they see as failures in the Middle East, long gas lines in the Southeast and border problems.
It’s another reminder that partisan politics requires seeing good news as bad if it makes the other side look competent, and that nationwide policies attempting to control a pandemic spread of disease is itself not immune from the contagion of partisanship.
The Washington Post provocatively asked “The new mask guidance relies on an honor system. Do we trust each other enough to make it work?” It noted that, “In an intensely polarized nation, many people have little faith that their mask-less fellow Americans have actually been vaccinated. That lack of trust, fueled by the ongoing politicization of the pandemic, tears at the fabric of a public-health strategy built on the assumption that other people will do the right thing.”
Between a third and half of Americans have been inoculated at least once, leaving most of the population among those instructed to keep their face coverings securely over their noses when indoors. But with federal officials repeatedly rejecting the possibility of vaccine passports, enforcement relies on an honor system.
Once again, the best advice seems to be common sense. If you’re outdoors, particualry with small groups in the warming months, it’s less likely that you’ll face contagion. But if you are in a crowd of strangers or on a train, plane or subway, logic says there is more risk.
In any event, people at our own local supermarkets in upstate New York remain masked, as they were outdoors at the plant store, as they were at the gas station (that had plenty of fuel to dispense despite the honking of impatient drivers elsewhere). As Biden said, he hoped all would respect the decision of those who will remain masked longer.
The most interesting part of this to me is the evident lack of trust in our neighbors, as well as the ever-present fear of change.
Just last week, it was reported that the pastor of a large church that insisted on holding services without masks or distancing himself came down with the disease. His response: It was God’s Will.
There is no government policy to expand or countermand that thinking, of course.
If we could all use masks, we wouldn’t have an issue over going without them now. If we’re going without them when it makes sense instead of as a sign of political resistance to government orders, maybe we could focus on disease instead of ideology. That would be its own reward, of course.
What makes change in lifestyle choices a lot more palatable is having some trust in a government that is announcing the policies. What makes for trust is transparency and assurance that there has been sufficient communication.
Few sane people would reject the good news reflected in this announcement of loosened rules.
But then, it surely could have come about in a better manner.