Friday, July 24, 2020

BTRTN: Unmasked... Do Citizens Have the Right To Refuse To Wear Masks?

In parts of our country, there is a controversy about whether government – Federal, state, or local – has the right to force a citizen to wear a mask. Steve believes that governments do have this right, but defends any citizen’s inalienable right to be an long as it is in the privacy of their own home. 

Einstein provided that great definition of insanity, which is to “do the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome.” Perhaps Einstein would have been pleased by this definition of stupidity: being told exactly what steps you must take to solve your catastrophic problem, and then completely ignoring them.

Yes, governors in states that are losing the battle with coronavirus, you are being told exactly what steps to take to essentially guarantee that your COVID-19 problem will be wrestled to the ground, and too many of you are willfully ignoring them.  Entire countries – and a number of states in the Northeast U.S. – have proven that if you follow these steps, you can safely re-open. But you are ignoring them. What's that word, Einstein?

The cure is, as they say, hard but not complicated. Implement sheltering-in-place, social distancing, mandatory masks, and the operation of only essential businesses for 45 to 60 days and it is pretty much guaranteed that your state will look a helluva lot more like New Zealand than Brazil. Can we be any more clear?

Of course I should not be so insulting. To Brazil, that is.The truth is that a number of states look worse than Brazil. One of the most telling measures of the level of contagion of the coronavirus is the number of new cases in the past week per 1,000,000 of population. This measure creates a strong relative benchmark: it allows you to make better comparisons of the extent of the virus between different sized pervasive is the virus on a per capita basis? More important, it is not a cumulative measure, but is based on the situation in the past week. In short, it answers the question how bad is the situation right now?

As of this morning, consider the "new cases, past week, per million of population:"

Brazil                1,354
United States    1,412

Florida               3,450
Mississippi         2,774
Arizona              2,518
S.Carolina         2,415
Georgia             2,384

Just for context: the comparable current number for New York State? 253. In Connecticut, it is 135. In Vermont, it is 83. 

Italy is 26. 

Fun fact: the five states shown here are among the 18 in the United States that CNN does not include in their list of states that "require people to wear masks when in public." 

Yes, five of the states with the most acute density of COVID-19 cases still don't think they need to take one of the most simple, effective, and proven ways to contain the virus. Indeed, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia went to court to actively prevent Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms from implementing a mandatory mask order in the city of Atlanta. Kemp claims that her order contradicts his own directive that no local official could take an action that was "more restrictive" than statewide policies, which do not allow local officials to mandate the use of masks. Kemp based the statewide position on his desire to rapidly re-open Georgia to commerce.

It's a curious and circular argument. At the level of political theory, Kemp appears to be asserting that because an individual has a right to make their own choice about wearing a mask, the government cannot mandate the wearing of masks. But do individuals really have that right? A great many states disagree.

And at a practical level, Kemp seems to be saying that he needs to let his state and its commerce operate with as few restrictions as possible in order to avoid economic catastrophe. Allow me to point out that when a deadly virus is raging through your communities, it is going to paralyze commerce. Interestingly, a large portion of the population does not want to cruise the jeans section at the Gap if it could result in the untimely death of Grandpa. Turns out that many, many people will hold off on the bottomless shrimp at Red Lobster if it entails the risk of six weeks on a ventilator. Sure, a portion of the population wants to go back to the bars and restaurants regardless of risk, but the broader point is clear: a local economy divided against itself will not thrive.

Governors, all you are doing by prolonging your premature “re-opening" is allowing the people who don’t care whether they have the virus or will get the virus to roam freely throughout your lovely towns and cities, greasing the velocity of contagion, prolonging and exacerbating the spread of the pandemic. This, ironically, further paralyzes the people who do care, do worry, and will not re-engage in commerce until the risk is mitigated. 

Allowing people to freely spread the virus, Governors, is only fanning the flames of its contagion while it further strangles your local economy. 

Florida, Georgia, and Arizona are three of the worst states in the nation for the density of contagion, yet these three states have not issued mask orders. Yes, Governors Kemp, DeSantis, and Ducey, it seems pretty darn likely that it is going to take more than masks -- perhaps going back to square one and locking down large portions of your states -- to get your COVID-19 problems under any semblance of control. And yet you do not even require masks in public places... perhaps the simplest and most effective step you could take. 

No, Governors, you can't hide in the shadows and hope that the mask mandates at Wal-Mart, Walgreens, Kroger, CostCo, Home Depot and other businesses do your work for you. Sooner or later you are going to have take real action, in defiance of your anti-masker citizens and your ignorant President. Might as well bite the bullet and get it over with. Stupid isn’t pretty, and it’s certainly nothing to be stubborn about. That the leaders of these states are ignoring science while trying to suck up to a delusional President and his supporters all in the hope of retaining political power is not just dumber than a box of hammers... it is political cowardice, plain and simple.

It is cowardice because these governors are putting their citizens at risk in order to suck up to a President who wants the voting population to believe that he has the pandemic "under control." But it is also cowardice because these Governors are afraid of upsetting the anti-mask vigilantes in their states whose conservative views likely comprise enough of their electorate to jeopardize their re-election prospects. These states, and others, clearly contain a virulent anti-government segment that challenges the government's right to force them to take steps to ensure the health and well-being of the society as a whole. And these governors are afraid of them. 

Yes, there is a question at hand raging across America today, one that has carved out an entirely new front in the political polarization of our country.

In towns and cities across America, citizens are already pushing back against mask mandates, and pushing back hard. They push back because wearing a mask is inconvenient, uncomfortable, because they don't think the virus is all that dangerous and is really going to harm them, and because they either cannot understand that a vital purpose of the mask it to prevent spreading the virus to others, or they just don't care.

Can citizens can be compelled by their government to participate in steps to arrest the spread of a virus? Can they be forced to wear a mask?

Or, as we chose to frame the issue today: do American citizens possess an inherent, undeniable, irrefutable right to be stupid?

It would seem that at face value (sorry, that just happened unintentionally), the wearing of masks in public places would be one of the biggest no brainers since opting for the Southwest flight instead of ValueJet. A U.C. Davis study released on July 6 concluded that “the risk of infection to the wearer is decreased by 65%” by wearing a mask. Dean Blumberg, who is chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital, phrased his conclusions with an elegance and grace I cannot match:

“Everyone should wear a mask. People who say ‘I don’t believe masks work’ are ignoring scientific evidence. It’s not a belief system. It’s like saying ‘I don’t believe in gravity’… You’re being an irresponsible member of the community if you’re not wearing a mask. It’s like double-dipping in the guacamole. You’re not being nice to others.”

Ah, leave it to the medical community in the greater Los Angeles area to find the perfect metaphor for community spread of the coronavirus in a Mexican-style party snack. Hey, if the only way to get people to understand the gravity of a global pandemic is to equate it with improper hors d'oeurve etiquette at a tailgate party, then bring on the Tostitos.

Consider that someone can have the disease and spread it without having any symptoms whatsoever – a fact that appears utterly incomprehensible to the under-30 population in the American South.  Will someone south of the Mason-Dixon line try explaining this to your party-raging 20-something: if you don’t want to wear a mask to protect yourself, wear one so you don’t accidentally kill grandma, your sister who is a new mother to an infant, your teacher, your coach, or the cashier down at Rite-Aid?

Yes, you do have an inalienable right to be stupid.

But you do not have an inalienable right to allow your stupidity to risk injury or death to others.
In my efforts to be as fair-minded as possible, I willed myself to construct a defense for the unmasked position. The best I can do is the following. Bear with me, because it is painful. 

In the past few weeks, there has been no shortage of Facebook posts that attempt to equate a requirement to wear masks with other examples of government "intervention" for a greater good. Smoking indoors, drinking and driving, taking your collection of AR-15s to a room in a Las Vegas hotel and spraying innocent citizens with machine gun fire… there are plenty of good examples of instances in which an individual’s actions clearly violate the rights of and cause harm to other citizens. But for all the Facebook posts, I don't get the sense that many people are disputing that the government has a right to do that.

The unmasked vigilantes would point out this in the matter of masks, you are not forbidding citizens from doing a harmful action, you are requiring that they take the step of wearing a prophylactic device to avoid doing harm to others. That is different. They might be quick to point out that there is no law requiring that you wear a condom when having sex if you know you have AIDS. While there are some state laws that require that persons who have HIV must disclose their condition prior to engaging in sex with partners, there are also states in which you can opt to not tell your sex partner that you have the AIDS virus, effectively putting that person at risk of a chronic lifetime disease or death without their knowledge. In many states, there is no law against it. 

Sounds a lot like having the freedom to not wear a mask if the purpose of the mask is to prevent harm to others, huh?

Further in the search for legal parallels and precedents, there is the entire issue of requiring children to be vaccinated against certain diseases as a precondition for attending school. Hey, in my book, if you don’t want to vaccinate your kids, that’s cool. Just home-school them. Don’t put my kid at risk simply because you opt to be stupid. But this is far from settled law. The anti-vaxxers will tell you that the government has no right to force them to vaccinate their children.

And then there are the pro-active steps that the government takes to prevent citizens from doing harm to themselves. You are required by the law to wear seat belts, for example, and the number of people who angrily protest against those decades-old laws is, uh, nobody. However, you are completely at liberty to smoke, which Kurt Vonnegut characterized as the “a fairly sure, fairly honorable form of suicide.” So it is against the law for you to take a relatively small risk with your own life inside your own vehicle, but it is just dandy to spend thirty years addicted to a behavior that is virtually certain to cause health issues and very likely death. Go figure. 

You are not allowed to smoke at a bar, but in that same bar you are free to consume quantities of alcohol with the tacit expectation that you will sensibly limit your consumption so that you can drive home safely. However, if you fail to drink in moderation, swerve into the other lane and kill that nice young couple, there is a high likelihood that you will live to be tried for murder... because you were legally required to wear a seat belt at the time. 

So there is your anti-masker view, and the perspective has some merit: our laws are all over the map. It’s clear that the government can tell you to stop doing things that hurt others, but perhaps a little less clear that the government can make you to something you don’t want to do for the same purpose. 

So when an indignant rebel-without-a-clue insists that the government has no right to mandate mask-wearing, you might want to attempt to engage in constructive dialog by conceding that there indeed is significant inconsistency in our Federal and State legislation regarding government regulation that attempts to constrain or require certain elective behaviors in order to prevent harm to fellow citizens. 

If, however, that person wants to engage you in a debate without wearing a mask, back off at least six feet and look for signs of wheezing, coughing, and difficulty breathing. Be prepared to run.

The nature of civil society is grounded in a notion of social contract, which is often reduced to the notion that your right to swing your fist ends at my nose. The social contract means that if you want to reap the benefits of association with and participation in a grouping of human beings, you better be prepared to accept that the collective has the right to impose rules on individuals in order to protect the health and safety of all. 

Yes, you have the inalienable right to be individually stupid – a right that frankly is being exercised by too many people in these days of a pandemic -- but not the right to ignore the social organism’s requirements for peaceful co-existence. By participating in the social organism, you are tacitly agreeing to its right to set rules. 

All of which is to say: the United States government, and local governments, have every right in the world to mandate behavior if it is judged to be crucial to the peaceful and healthy co-existence.

If you categorically, absolutely refuse to wear a mask, go join the Branch Covidians, where you can hide out on a farm and grow your own food. God help you if you need to repair your plumbing. 

If you don’t want to wear a mask, that’s fine with me. Just don’t walk down Main Street, don’t get on the bus, don’t order a Big Mac, don’t relieve yourself at the rest stop on the Interstate, don’t run in a crowded park. Feel free to enjoy not wearing your mask at home and in socially-distanced strolls in your neighborhood. 

And if you really want to make your protest into a real, honest political statement, you can always resort to civil disobedience. That means intentionally violating a law for the purpose of making the point that you think the law is unjust. But there’s this one little issue with civil disobedience: you have to understand and accept that you will be arrested and punished for violating the law. You will go to jail. That is the entire point of civil disobedience: that you believe so strongly in your contrarian view that you are willing to go to jail to make your statement to society. So, yeah… if you want to protest mask requirements by going to jail, fine. All I would suggest is that you might want to bring a mask to wear in prison, because the spread of COVID-19 in our jails is even worse than it is in Broward County. 

Yes, the government has every right to require you to wear a mask in public.

All we need now is government that has the guts to recognize that they possess this right. Come on, Florida. Get with it, Arizona. And God help all of you in Georgia who elected the second biggest moron in the country to be your Governor.

A mask mandate in a local town is only as effective as the degree it is embraced by the entire population.

And in fighting a global pandemic, our nation is only as strong as the state with the biggest problem. The Northeast worked hard to wrestle COVID-19 to a draw.

It's unfair that states that don't have the will to implement the full measures to fight this virus are going to send contagious people all over the country and restart the pandemic everywhere.

Many of the governors who refuse to implement mask requirements claim that they think masks are a matter of personal choice, and that they respect the right of the individual to make their own choice. This is truly the apotheosis of circular idiocy: stupid governors making stupid decisions and justifying them by citing their respect for the right of the individual idiot to make stupid decisions.

Who in these states is defending the right of citizens who simply seek to avoid being made ill or die at the hands of careless, clueless, or reckless fellow citizens?
All we need now is state governments that realize that they can stop of spread of the coronavirus in its tracks if they just have the guts to take the steps required to stop the coronavirus in its tracks.

All we need now is state governments that have to suck it in, accept that they re-opened too quickly, too broadly, and without any of the testing infrastructure in place to measure whether they were able to keep the virus in check while re-opening. 

That means we need leaders who understand that they have to back to square one and start all over again. In your hard-hit areas, you must re-institute lock downs, sheltering-in-place, social distancing, and mask... for 45 to 60 days. 

Because I will defend each and every American’s individual right to be stupid in the privacy of their own home.

But that is not a freedom we can afford to extend to our leaders and our government. 

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