The COVID-19 pandemic continues to generate emotion, multiple perceptions of reality, and episodes of irresponsibility, courage and resilience. Such dynamics guarantee that politics is afoot. We ruminate on contested issues impacting the political landscape — and our health.
A major source of pandemic contention in the nation and state is whether government should mandate mask wearing while in public. Meanwhile, private institutions are encouraging voluntary compliance — as they should. For example, Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson recently called for a 55-day mask-up crusade to scale back the virus by Labor Day. Inquiries from national organizations have been received over this intense volunteer effort. Should state government mandate mask wearing, or will voluntary appeals succeed?
Pignanelli: “Wear a mask, unless you want to be intubated by a gynecology intern who did her last semester of med school via Zoom.” — Dr. Emily Porter, emergency physician
State leaders missed an opportunity. They should have appointed the individual with Jedi master skills who could compel citizens to wear a mask by utilizing the greatest force in the universe — guilt. I am referring to my Irish Catholic mother. Her Yoda abilities of imposing self-reproach would soon have all Utahns wearing masks with deep contrition for past omissions.
The emotions fostered by masks are pulling officials in opposite directions. Even the compromise crafted by Gov. Gary Herbert of requiring masks just for public schools is generating vocal opposition from many parents. Lawmakers are raising legitimate questions how to enforce a comprehensive mask mandate without looking like a police state.
Even dedicated advocates of opening the economy in a green phase (including me) understand unequivocally that wearing a mask is the most efficient activity to contain the virus. This is driving alternate voices including Matheson’s call to arms and the compelling campaign “stay safe to stay open” launched by the business community.
These “Utah Way” voluntary efforts must succeed, or a mandate is in the future. (Of course, Mom is always available.)
Webb: Opinions are firm and emotions are high on mandatory masks. It’s always better to willingly do what’s right, rather than be forced by the heavy hand of government. Mask-wearing enforcement is tough, but we could publish names and images of violators on Frank’s Facebook account, a virtual wall of shame. Cameras are everywhere, so beware. Personally, my wife says I look a lot better when most of my face is covered, so I have no problem donning a mask.
While local governments should be able to impose mask sanctions if they wish, a statewide mandate is not necessary. The state is too diverse and conditions vary too much for statewide compulsion. For example, my wife and I have been social distancing at our farm in the remote northwestern corner of Box Elder County. The nearest humans are a mile away, so no need to wear a mask. However, I find I don’t scare the cows, chickens, dogs and coyotes as much when I cover up my ugly mug.
The federal and the Utah governments are under scrutiny in the media and by political opponents on managing the COVID-19 crisis. Did our leaders act appropriately and where is public opinion going on this?
Pignanelli: Other countries have succeeded in persuading their populations to comply with restrictions. But Americans are not Danish or New Zealanders. We have a rough independent streak, creating issues for government leaders. Remember, our immediate ancestors were similarly obnoxious and stubborn — while defeating fascism, communism and other challenges.
Americans do demand competence with basic functions in the public and private sectors. So, their litmus tests for government will be consistent reliable testing and a strategic approach to vaccinations.
Webb: Liberals and the media have been critical because the Trump administration and governors have not issued harsh nationwide and statewide stay-at-home and mask-wearing mandates. Sure, such edicts might have reduced the virus spread. But Americans simply won’t stand for dramatic constraints on their freedom, even for health reasons. Americans are more independent and leery of government decrees than denizens of many other countries. Also, our system of federalism, a fragmented governance structure with sovereign states, doesn’t lend itself to dictates from on high. We can strike the right balance without onerous compulsion.
Leaders are doing their best with the information at hand. No one can be fully prepared for something like this. Criticism is easy, especially in hindsight, and especially from those hanging out on the sidelines who don’t have to make the quick and tough decisions.
Utah school districts are developing a variety of approaches to opening schools this fall with online and/or classroom participation. Should kids go back to school?
Pignanelli: Elementary school children suffer milder ramifications of the virus. School programs provide incredible needed services (i.e. nutrition, preventing abuse, expanding learning, de facto childcare for working families). The schools must fully reopen.
Webb: Local districts properly have the authority to make reopening decisions based on local conditions. Parents should be able to determine whether children go to school or learn online. But, in general, I believe we should absolutely get the kids back in class, taking all feasible steps to keep them safe.