“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.”
Professor Timothy Snyder writing in “On Tyranny”
As the country is dealing with unprecedented growth of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 across at least 42 states, efforts to slow the pandemic are running headlong into another culturally divisive political issue: gun laws.
Wearing a face mask in public can help prevent the spread of coronavirus. This is a fact. That this is a fact is born out by several scientific studies, reiterated by the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. Reasonable Americans everywhere know that by wearing a facemask, they significantly reduce the chances of them infecting other people, or other people infecting them with a virus we now know can be passed on while a person is asymptomatic.
Just yesterday, National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins called the political divide over wearing facemasks “bizarre.” He added that he does not believe face coverings are “optional for people who want to protect themselves and people around them.”
“It is bizarre that we have turned mask-wearing into something political,” he said during an interview on “Meet the Press.” “How could it be that something as basic as a public health action that we have very strong evidence can help seems to attach to people’s political party?”
But facemasks have increasingly become a personal or political statement, fanned by no less than President Donald Trump.
The president wore a mask for the first time in public a week ago Saturday while visiting veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. But his Tweet record would appear to reveal where he really stands, referencing everything from a fantasy that “the virus will just disappear,” to expressions of freedom, and outright refusal to believe the facts presented by scientists and medical professionals.
In his public appearances, he has ridiculed reporters for wearing masks, visited plants manufacturing personal protective equipment unmasked, and held political rallies where masks or physical distancing were not required.
His defiance of science and facts are contagious. Across the country, defiant customers have made headlines with viral videos of people shouting their refusals to wear face coverings and refusing to leave businesses that require facemasks or set out social distancing guidelines.
His supporters have taken to distorting the facts and the very real protections afforded to those with real physical disabilities. To avoid wearing mandated facemasks, some conservative Omaha women have begun creating fake Americans with Disabilities (ADA) signs, taking in vain the American’s with Disability act.
Recently, repudiation of the facts of the protection provided by facemasks has merged with another divisive political issue: gun laws.
Americans have begun buying guns and ammunition at record rates, an uptick that began as soon as the pandemic began; a reaction seen during other emergencies and natural disasters.
As the protests began after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May, weekly revenue at firearm and sporting goods stores went up more than 50 percent year-over-year since the week of March 15, according to the small business software firm Womply. Just in the last week of May, firearm sales were up 78 percent over 2019.
The online ammunition website Ammo.com said it saw a 602 percent increase in revenue during the pandemic, with people in Texas, Florida, and Illinois accounting for the most orders.
In case after case around the country, even in red states with Republican governors, state leaders have enacted social distancing and mandatory facemask orders in desperate attempts to slow the community spread of the virus. Nearly half the states have now enacted mask mandates. But the response from some of Trump’s mesmerized followers have been threats of violence, and refutation of scientific evidence.
- In Kansas City, Bob Palmgren the owner of a 17-year-old BBQ restaurant faced off with a customer who refused to put on a mask and waved a gun. ” I’m like holy sh*t. I run over there, and I’m like hey, what’s going on? And he shows me his Trump hat,” said Palmgren. “And I like Trump. Everybody’s got problems. But it doesn’t make a difference. You don’t have a mask on. And I’m like, your gun’s not going to kill coronavirus, now get the hell out of here.”
- In Florida, a gun shop owner kicked out customers who were wearing facemasks, but he cited Florida law that says you can’t carry a gun and wear a mask, so he wanted customers to choose guns.
- In Los Angeles, the Orange County School District announced in striking anti-mask rhetoric that “requiring children to wear masks during school is not only difficult — if not impossible to implement — but [is] not based on science. It may even be harmful.” In response, said professor of medicine and an infectious diseases specialist at UC San Francisco Dr. Peter Chin-Hong. “This anti-mask rhetoric is mind-blowing, dangerous, deadly, and polarizing. There is no evidence that it is dangerous.”He added that wearing masks can help prevent children from being infected and suffering serious consequences of infection, such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare condition that has been seen in children who have been infected with the coronavirus. “Kids not only transmit, but they can get sick as well,” he added.
- In Avon, Colorado last week, a man in the local City Market, refused to follow the store’s guidelines and announced that he had his friends ‘Smith, Wesson, and Winchester” in the car and he wasn’t afraid to bring them into the store. Months ago the store added directional signage, plexiglass checkout dividers, and 6 ft. spacing spots to all its stores, along with mask recommendations. (At the time, Eagle County and neighboring Summit and Lake counties had mandatory facemask orders in place.)
- In Buena Vista, Colorado during a 4th of July speaker event sponsored by the Buena Vista Event Center, billed as a candidate forum, at least two unmasked political candidates sported guns. Ron Hanks (R), running for the District 60 Assembly seat occupied by term-limited Rep. Jim Wilson, was wearing his guns. Hannah Hannah (R) running for Chaffee County Commissioner against Commissioner Keith Baker, dropped a gun magazine on her chair on the stage.
What is it with white men (and women) who appear so insecure that they have to wave guns around and threaten business owners and the general public during a public health crisis?
The great irony of this is that those claiming their own freedom to carry guns and ignore public safety rules, tend to frame this as their second amendment rights. But they ignore — or refute the reality — that the manner of their strident demands directly contradicts the first amendment rights of the rest of the population. The clearly-framed, Constitutionally-mandated factual responsibility of our government to protect us “from all enemies foreign and domestic.”
- The man in the Avon store said he was former military. Since when does that mean one doesn’t understand how to follow directions in a retail store? It doesn’t.
- The man in the Kansas City restaurant pointed to his MAGA hat as the reason he could flaunt the rules of the business he entered. It doesn’t give him any special privileges.
- The objectors to the Los Angeles mask-wearing policy have taken to outright lies to defend their position. Since when do lies determine public health policy? They don’t.
Some would like to frame the dilemma as a cultural issue. It isn’t. People who respect facts knows this is a public health crisis for which wearing a mask is akin to wearing a helmet in a war zone. But wearing a facemask is also an economic issue.
In Kansas City, Palmgren says he worries that customers refusing to wear masks will jeopardize his business. “I get people in here that don’t want to do it and think that we’re a small place so we won’t enforce it or something,” he said. “But if everybody gets sick, then I’m out of business. So I’ve got to enforce these rules.”
Some would call it a personal freedom issue and have taken to waving the constitution around and touting freedoms. It isn’t. It’s a public safety issue.
By doing so they take a narrow interpretation of the constitution, or the responsibility of our government to protect us from all enemies foreign and domestic?
As one Chaffee resident framed it: “If all residents are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, since when does your liberty trump my right to live?”
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” wrote Professor Timothy Snyder in “On Tyranny”. As we consider this growing conflict, perhaps the American people should ask this question: when Trump took his oath to uphold the constitution and protect the American people — that’s us — was he telling the truth?
“We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism,” wrote Snyder. “Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience .”
Featured image: Courtesy of Unsplash