Face masks are a very small sacrifice

From guest contributor Michael Lottman:

Two things I know for sure about the coronavirus pandemic:

1. Face masks properly used are the simplest and most effective method of controlling the spread of the virus which has already affected more than 133,000 Tennesseans and killed more than 1,300 of them. For the person wearing a mask, it filters out some if not all of the incoming droplets containing the virus; and more importantly, it holds in many of the viral droplets that may be exhaled.  So according to one analysis, if 95% of the population in a given area wear cloth (not surgical) masks when around other people, each person who may be infected will go on to infect 30% fewer people than would otherwise be the case. Over 35 days, then, 100 infected people will translate into 889 virus cases if no masks are worn—but to only 332 cases if 95% are wearing masks, and this degradation would continue (National Public Radio “Shots”).

That may not seem like much, but in fact, as Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield has written, “the more individuals wear cloth face coverings in public places where they may be close together, the more the entire community is protected.”  Also, Redfield has said, “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control” (STAT News).

2. Unfortunately, for far too many people in Cheatham County, the State of Tennessee, and many other states, even the thought of that brief and painless inconvenience is evidently too much to contemplate. (Serious illness or death from the COVID-19, apparently not so much.)  A nation-wide analysis of mask-wearing by the New York Times in late July concluded that full use of such protection was more prevalent in Tennessee’s large cities than in rural areas—as low as 4% in some places and no more than 50 to 65% even in Nashville and Memphis (The Tennessean).  That is, in other words, nowhere close to the “universal” or “near-universal” compliance that scientists say would make a difference.

Data or no data, as many of us travel around Kingston Springs or Ashland City or other places in Cheatham County– or read the paper or watch TV or scroll through the Internet– we have seen with our own eyes that our fellow citizens go in and out, up and down, in groups or otherwise without a care or a face mask or even a thought to social distancing or other safety measures.  In some quarters of our divided country, moreover, to mask or not to mask has become a partisan political issue, which should generate many scholarly dissertations if anyone is still around to write them.

With the president abdicating a leadership role, one might expect the next line of defense for Tennessee to be its governor, but while that has been the case in some states, it certainly hasn’t here.  Almost from the beginning, Gov. Lee has maintained a detached and unsympathetic attitude toward the plight of the virus’ present and prospective victims. When there was a dramatic 40% rise in infections and hospitalizations in May and June, as Tennesseans were released (or released themselves) from an early stay-at-home order, Lee took the news with frightening nonchalance.  His administration was monitoring the “uptick” in the number of casualties, he said, and besides, “[the new deaths were] not unexpected given that folks are out and about much more, moving around our state” (The Tennessean).  The governor was not about to admit that the restrictions on residents and businesses had been abandoned much too soon, and he was not about to slow down the “re-opening” process or to mandate use of face masks, the practice of social distancing, or any other such preventive measures.  He still hasn’t.

For Cheatham County, at least, County Mayor Kerry McCarver has the authority to mitigate or resolve many of the foregoing issues and to help prevent a looming future of unnecessary suffering–but he doesn’t want to.  Rather, he has staked out a position of encouraging but refusing to mandate the use of face masks in Cheatham County, and on the basis of flimsy concerns about the form of Gov. Lee’s delegation order and the pervasive misapplication of quasi-legal concepts like freedom and personal liberty, he has doggedly refused to reconsider.

McCarver seeks refuge in the oft-invoked claim that the governmental action involved in requiring the use of face masks violates the rights of those who object:  “We also have to decide what level of government do we need and [be] willing to tolerate or accept to live truly free and independent (Ashland City Times).”  This argument is often heard coming from persons who venture into stores or businesses or other crowded areas without bothering to employ even the simplest protections of themselves, their families and friends, and others in their lives.  An experienced government official should know, however, that “quarantine laws” and “health laws of every description” were held to be within the police power of the state almost 200 years ago (Gibbons v. Austin, U.S. Supreme Court, 1824), and that the decision of the Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1915) involving required smallpox vaccination held that “in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the health of its members[,] the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint… .”

In light of these cases, which still apply, measures such as stay-at-home orders, closure of non-essential businesses, and others designed to limit contact with others are especially likely to be permitted now because of the lack of a vaccine to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  This sort of regulation would likely not be considered to be arbitrary, unusual, or unreasonable, “because health boards across the United States, and across the world, have recommended such regulations to protect the public health and safety” (Alabama Lawyer).  And a mere mask-wearing requirement, being less intrusive than any of these restrictions, and much less than a smallpox restriction, would be even more likely to be upheld.  One may have a right to kill oneself (or not), but that right would not extend to endangering family members, friends, or members of the community.  The recent opinion of state Attorney General Herbert Slatery III fully subscribes to the principles of Gibbons and Jacobson, and county mayors should consider themselves bound as well.

In all, the American public, as well as its government, has not given a very good account of itself since the pandemic descended upon our country.  Instead of rising to the occasion, we have whined and complained, refused to make even the slightest sacrifice or to suffer the slightest inconvenience, and worst of all, turned even the simplest question or request into a bitter partisan dispute.  Look at our House, Senate, and president spend weeks fighting about nothing while millions go without jobs or fair compensation or often anything to eat; look at the endless arguments over just the issue of whether we should wear face masks or not.  And our most difficult trials are still ahead of us.

“The current moment is demonstrating just how far away we are from being able to come together to solve a planetary crisis,” wrote Harry Cheadle in July on  “The pandemic is a test, and we’re failing it.  If the federal government reacts to the greatest public health crisis in a century with half measures, what could possibly convince it to react sufficiently to climate change?  If governors won’t demand that their citizens wear masks to save lives, will they be willing to get people to reduce their carbon footprints?  If so many authoritarian and authoritarian-adjacent governments react to a pandemic with denial, what can we expect as the climate crisis worsens?”  Sadly, the Greatest Generation is all but gone, and all the evidence suggests that America no longer has what it takes.