As a resident of UW’s hometown, I was truly surprised by our city council’s recent vote against a resolution mandating face masks in public places. That stirred my curiosity: why do so many of my fellow citizens oppose wearing masks? How, if at all, might their minds be changed? (Full disclosure: I am over 60 and wear a mask in public places.)
On July 17, the UW Survey and Analysis Center released results of its sixth opinion survey on COVID-19. For the first time, a majority (56 percent) of respondents said that they would support local ordinances requiring masks in public places indoors; less than half of respondents said that they now wear masks in those places. Most expected the virus to get worse; yet more respondents than in earlier surveys want the schools to reopen.
Seeming contradictions revealed in the full report (https://wysac.uwyo.edu/wysac/reports/View/6695) suggest confusion in the public’s mind. Unfortunately, confusion sows fear; which arguably poses a greater threat to democracy than the virus. Addressing Congress in wartime (1941), President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke these memorable words: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
In listening to people who decline to wear masks, two arguments stand out. First, with our low population density, wide-open spaces and ever-present wind, we need not worry about spreading the virus. But that ignores our need to congregate in public places indoors. More and more private businesses, most notably Walmart, are requiring face masks to protect the health of their employees as well as their customers.
Secondly, some perceive that wearing masks restricts personal freedom. Prior to a recent Laramie City Council meeting, numerous residents gathered outside City Hall to oppose the mask mandate. My friend Taylor Hanes spoke, arguing that the mandate violates the Constitution, presumably the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of assembly. But does the requirement of a valid driver’s license limit our freedom to drive on public thoroughfares? With freedom comes the responsibility, which means not infecting our neighbors and fellow citizens.
As a long-time student of history, I would suggest that opposition to mask-wearing is symptomatic of something far deeper than what opponents might argue, namely, the desire for independence in thought and action. Five centuries ago, Martin Luther expressed the then-radical view that every Christian believer should be allowed to read and interpret scripture without the help of a pastor. Then John Calvin gave structure to Luther’s unprecedented interpretation of individualism, by turning Geneva into a tightly-organized “republic of virtue.”
The spirit of individualism within structure contributed to innovations in science, especially on how we learn about the natural world. By discovering the laws of nature through observation and experimentation, scientists and tinkerers invented mechanisms for making life easier and more meaningful. But in studying homo sapiens within the context of the natural world, scientists appeared to undermine the biblical story of creation; which to this day helps explain anti-science sentiment, including rejecting the pleas by public health officials that everyone wear masks.
In a recent newspaper column, Cheyenne physician and public health officer Stanley Hartman suggested that anyone who doubts the efficacy of face masks try this simple experiment: breathe onto your bathroom mirror; it will fog up with droplets that carry COVID-19 germs if you’re infected, even without showing symptoms of the virus. Then put on a cloth mask and breathe into the mirror; it will not fog up because the mask has stopped droplets from traveling through the air.
To be clear, a face mask is meant to protect others, not so much the wearer. Even if not 100% effective, it nonetheless sends the message of respect for others; that we’re all in this together. Except perhaps for the trappers, miners and speculators who opened the West, no one really believes that an individual can be fully self-sufficient. We may be anti-social or withdrawn from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. But even monks live according to the rules of their religious communities. Deep down, the matter of wearing or not wearing masks has to do with the delicate balance of individual liberty (individualism) and the common good (community). To date, nothing on earth has surpassed the balance outlined in the U.S. Constitution; it’s up to us to prudently apply to specific issues and circumstances.
John F. Freeman lives in Laramie. He is trained in history. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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