I don’t know what mystifies me more: Wyomingites who don’t care enough about their neighbors to wear a mask during a surging pandemic, or Gov. Mark Gordon not requiring people to cover their faces in public.
Both, however, anger me. Enough with the endless hand-wringing and excuse-making, all in the name of pandering to those who think they have constitutional rights to selfishness and stupidity.
Is that too blunt? Sorry, tell it to the daughter whose parent is dying alone on a ventilator because someone decided not to honor what the governor sees as their “personal responsibility” to protect others.
As citizens go to the polls today, the big political question in Wyoming isn’t just who will win a particular race. Voters also want to know if Gordon, who’s not on the ballot, will ever manage to sign a statewide mask mandate.
The maddening thing about Gordon and State Health Officer Alexia Harrist only encouraging mask usage is that both readily acknowledge that wearing face coverings saves lives. They’ve been saying as much since the spring, when the first state emergency restrictions were issued on certain businesses and schools in the wake of the novel coronavirus.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Pandemic Response coordinator, appeared with the duo at a press conference in Riverton last Wednesday. “I can tell you that the virus is not political,” she said. “We owe it to each other to wear a mask. The virus does not distinguish between young, old, Republicans, Democrats or independents. It’s not about party.”
The doctor holds an extremely political job, though, and stopped short of suggesting Wyoming impose a mandatory mask order. She said it’s good to listen to county, municipal and tribal officials and health officers so decisions can be made at a local level.
I’m personally glad that Teton and Laramie counties have joined the Wind River Indian Reservation tribal councils by deciding to enact mandatory mask ordinances, with Harrist’s approval. Living in Cheyenne, I was dismayed last month to see the number of retail-store customers who wore masks drop precipitously when those businesses relaxed their policies.
I found it most telling, though, when Birx spoke movingly about the impact of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic on her own family. “When my grandmother brought [the flu] home to her mother, and she died, that is what you carry for the rest of your life,” she said.
Yes, even the doctor in charge of coordinating the U.S. response to this miserable disease breaks it down to its most basic common denominator: Family is what matters most. Birx added that she now worries about her parents, both in their 90s, and keeping them safe in a COVID-19 world.
I realize there are many factors determining the best way to manage the health impacts of the pandemic, and mask wearing must be coupled with social distancing, personal hygiene, rigorous testing and contact tracing. But it’s a huge weapon that must be deployed, especially by officials who want to restore the economy by safely reopening communities.
Wherever mask mandates are enacted, Birx said, they are an extra nudge to the public to do the right thing. “It’s not that you need government enforcement, it’s that we need constant reminders when we’re in public to wear our masks,” she said.
A nudge, though, isn’t what we need — a kick in the pants is. And that’s precisely what a new study from the COVID-19 forecasting team at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation indicates.
Its model predicts that if 95% of Americans wore masks in public, 100,000 lives might be spared through February. Here’s what it would mean on a Wyoming level: It’s likely that several people you know wouldn’t needlessly be victims of preventable deaths.
Are there really people in this state who don’t believe that’s a cause worth uniting for, regardless of one’s personal political beliefs?
Harrist offered a great example of the social contract we have to protect each other.
“I think it’s important for people to be able to imagine walking into a grocery store and how they could infect someone else,” Harrist said, “and how that chain reaction could end up in an infection in a long-term care facility or nursing home, and lead to a death or many deaths.”
Gordon seems to realize that such an empathetic exercise has inherent societal value. “When we act irresponsibly, we put our liberties, we put our economy and we put our government in jeopardy,” he said at an Oct. 21 news conference in Cheyenne. “It is incredibly important that we take personal responsibility for our actions and understand how those actions can implicate others.”
Yet Gordon balks at telling anyone he or she must wear a mask, despite the fact that 34 other governors — including many Republicans — have had the wisdom and political courage to issue statewide mask mandates.
Active coronavirus cases statewide totaled nearly 5,000 as of Sunday night. Wyoming had recorded 2,246 new cases in the past week — a period that also saw state officials announcing a record 19 COVID-19 deaths as daily hospitalizations rose to more than 100 for the first time.
Gordon referred to how health officials talked earlier about flattening the curve, but described the surge in cases Wyoming is experiencing “more or less a straight line heading upwards.”
If that isn’t an image that changes the governor’s mind about an executive emergency order, what else would possibly convince him?
Being the chief executive of a state is a huge job that requires big-picture leadership — taking a macro view of how the health and safety of the state’s residents and visitors connect to the rest of the country and the world.
It’s decidedly not OK to abdicate that tremendous responsibility and foist it off on municipal and county officials who are more attuned to planning and zoning issues, snow removal and curbside recycling programs. Simply put, it’s above their pay grade.
Telling people they should accept personal responsibility for their actions is a good catchphrase, particularly if it appeases a population with a libertarian philosophical bent. But a corollary idea is that because we cause our actions, we can be held morally accountable or legally liable.
In a world where many with coronavirus are asymptomatic but can spread it to anyone, anywhere, at any time, no one can ever pin the blame on them if a maskless sneeze sets off a chain reaction of disease and death.
Some will later recognize their harmful actions and, like Birx’s grandmother, may be haunted. But for many unwilling to accept the bare minimum of responsibility to protect others, we’re just letting them off the hook.
If you don’t want to be culpable for pretending this egregious mistake doesn’t matter, I urge you to ask the governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.