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Opinion: Face masks slow the spread of COVID-19, and local governments should have flexibility to mandate use
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Gov. Brian Kemp visits Fieldale in Gainesville Friday, May 15, 2020, for a tour of the chicken processing plant. - photo by Scott Rogers

Not even the most insightful of prognosticators could have predicted six months ago that one of the most divisive elements confronting the American people in 2020 would be the wearing of face masks.

Who could have imagined that the debate over whether to strap on a face covering as part of a public health initiative would have sparked such rancor among the populace as to have ramifications in all walks of life?

The concept of covering mouth and nose to potentially stop the spread of a virus that has destroyed lives worldwide has become a raging controversy that incorporates health, politics, American freedom, capitalism, social structure and a host of international conspiracies.

Keyboard warriors of social media, amateur infectious disease experts, political grandstanders and finger-pointing zealots on both sides of the debate have elevated the mask issue into a struggle for control of the country.

Were it not so deadly serious, it would be absurd.

Some believe those who refuse to wear a mask are evil incarnate. Some believe those who do wear a mask are fools manipulated by omnipotent powers. Some are convinced the masks save lives; others think they are more dangerous than good.

Experts in the health field say wear one, except for those who disagree. Politicians say wear one, except for those who say not to.

And meanwhile, the numbers of COVID-19 cases are again on the rise, the hospitals again threatening to reach maximum capacity, and the nation still in a pandemic that shows no signs of relenting.

The face mask debate is particularly heated in Georgia at the moment. Gov. Brian Kemp on Wednesday ordered that local governments in the state have no authority to mandate wearing of masks in public, and that the few such mandates that were in place were invalid.

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Only the state can make such a decree, the governor said, and the state is only willing to suggest the wearing of masks, not mandate such action.

The governor said that the mandates are impossible to enforce, and in that he is right. They are largely symbolic, but sometimes symbolic measures can have great impact. Statewide measures limiting the numbers of people in bars and restaurants are not impossible to enforce, but are close to it. And yet they exist, as do a host of other orders that are unlikely to be enforced, such as mandatory cleaning of bowling balls.

“It’s officially official, Governor Kemp does not give a damn about us,” said the mayor of Savannah, which along with other areas of the Georgia coast have seen a marked uptick in COVID cases in recent weeks. Savannah was the first of Georgia’s cities to require a face mask when in public, followed by others, including Atlanta and Athens.

The legality of whether local governments have the authority to exceed what the state has ordered during the midst of a public health crisis is a topic best pursued by lawyers and judges. But there seems little doubt the governor could have granted that authority had he chosen to do so, rather than reprimanding local officials for the action they had taken.

After all, in the very same executive order, the governor did grant to local school systems the authority to require masks in public schools for both workers and students “to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

So mandatory face masks are alright for schools but not for city governments? They help stop the spread of the disease in a classroom but not on a crowded city sidewalk? Don’t waste a lot of time looking for logic in that particular gubernatorial dictate.

The governor has made it very clear he believes in masks, knows they help, and encourages every Georgian to wear them. He just doesn’t want an impotent mandate.

It is also important to note that the ill-advised lawsuit filed against the city of Atlanta by the state on Thursday had as much to do with the city’s efforts to force the closure of businesses than it did whether face masks would be required. That is a different issue, though one interwoven into the same arguments over the authority of government entities. The lawsuit itself is yet another sign of partisan bickering over power at a time we need cooperative leadership. It should not have been filed.

There are legal issues here that predate the existence of the current pandemic. States and cities have for years argued over the extent to which individual cities can pass laws on a number of topics that are different from state law. Can a city set its own minimum wage, require private businesses to offer certain benefits to employees, have its own laws on discrimination, or other topics? The “preemption” issue as it is called was a hot legal topic before the first case of COVID-19 was ever diagnosed.

Those are debates of legal theory and governmental principle that should be argued in an arena separated from the urgent immediacy of a public health crisis.

While the governor has chosen not to make masks mandatory, a number of private retailers, including major companies like Walmart and Kroger, have announced that they will require face coverings on customers, setting off a different kind of protest from those opposed to wearing one.

Social media posts were ablaze with comments about the loss of American freedoms, governments run amok and communist plots to take over the country. In fact, just the opposite is true.

There is nothing more American that capitalism, which allows private companies to decide how they want to operate and consumers to decide if they will patronize those companies. There is no better example of American freedom than free enterprise devoid of government intervention.

Don’t want to patronize a company that mandates mask? Then don’t. Shop elsewhere. Appreciate a company that promises all its customers will be wearing face coverings? Then good, go there and shop in confidence. That is the American way.

What’s totally inane is that the face mask debate has become so embroiled in the heated emotions of politics and misguided advocacy on both sides as to have resulted in threats, personal confrontations, physical attacks and even deaths in various locales around the country.

It is impossible to pretend that positions on the issue of face masks are not being influenced as much by politics as by science. The president wants the economy open, schools in session, and the general public thinking about something other than the pandemic. He does not want a reminder of the crisis visible on the face of everyone out in public.

The president’s opponents on the other hand would love nothing more than to make political hay out of the health crisis, and face masks are a constant reminder that months into the pandemic, the United States has not fared as well as many other countries in “flattening the curve” and beating back the virus.

If the governor is not going to make the use of masks mandatory statewide, we think he should give local governments the authority to mandate if they so choose, just as he has with the schools. Not all areas of the state face the same challenges; there are hotspots that demand drastic action.

Regardless of whether face masks are mandatory or voluntary, we are convinced, like the governor, that the evidence shows they can help to slow the spread of the disease. We don’t understand why someone would refuse to do something so minor as wearing a mask in a public place if by doing so they knew they may be helping to keep others safe.

In a more controlled environment, like some workplaces where social distancing is possible and other measures of prevention are taken on a consistent basis, wearing a mask at all times may not be necessary.

But decisions on whether to do so need to be based on public health concerns, not political allegiance. Few tombstones make note of the political party favored by the occupant of the grave they mark, though many extol the virtues of a long life, well lived.

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