To mask or not to mask – by Deborah Levine

Originally published in The Chattanooga Times Free Press

I got a call from my cousin Lenny from a New York hospital telling me that they’d just admitted his elderly mother into the emergency room. He was upset because the hospital restricted his time with his mother as part of COVID-19 protocols.  But “Upset” didn’t cover his reaction to the receptionist not wearing a mask and neither a few of the medical staff. He made his objections loud and clear and took pictures on his phone. At that point, security was called and he got tossed out.  Picturing this kerfuffle over my aunt’s prone body, I’m taking the war over masks personally.

When I see headlines about North Dakota’s Republican governor Doug Burgum being on “brink of tears as he decries ‘mask shaming’, I’m horrified that the governor had to beg but encouraged that he had the courage to do so. It takes guts for a Republican governor to antagonize the anti-maskers when Biden says yes and Trump says no way. The battle’s begun in a presidential campaign fight to the political death.

Political battles have already watered down mandates into messy recommendations. The Texas governor overruled local officials who mandated masks in public and made them optional and therefore, unenforceable. When fights broke out in a San Antonio store, law enforcement was called to break it up, but no arrests were made, or could be made. The fights get uglier every day, with protesters spitting on law enforcement. A security guard was fatally shot after he barred a customer without a mask from a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan.

Some anti-maskers say, “requiring people to wear them was unconstitutional” to justify their actions. That might sound like a recent revelation, but it’s actually a quote from a century ago. When the 1918 flu hit San Francisco, 2,000 residents became sick in less than a month. The city closed businesses, prohibited large gatherings, and mandated wearing masks. The Anti-Mask League was born and protesters filled the streets.

Sound familiar? Today’s Anti-Mask movement insists “Don’t Mask My Freedom” and calls the mask a “New Symbol of Tyranny.” But I doubt Anti-Maskers ever had their comatose body hurried to the hospital, as I did years ago. I bet they haven’t woken up in the ICU surrounded by medics in hazmat suits checking for some deadly tropical virus. Decades later, I still cry remembering. If they’d had similar experiences, a culture of “Give me liberty or give me death” wouldn’t be quite so popular.   

Today’s politics needs some history. Know that 1,000 died of that flu in San Fransisco, but just four months later, as people stopped wearing masks, the number tripled. What about those numbers says chuck your mask? Masks are proven to decrease exposure so why did people gather unmasked and shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowded pool on Memorial Day?

Back in 1918 San Fransisco, they had a saying: “Obey the laws, and wear the gauze. Protect your jaws from septic paws.” Sound advice for an economic opening, but today’s politics force legal mandates to give way to mere suggestions and an individualism that can be deadly.

We all value our individual liberty, but we can choose to also value human life. Consider the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

So choose life and wear that mask, if not for my life, then for yours. As St. Francis said, “…it is in giving that we receive.”

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