Law, Norms, Mandates, and Masks

There is a big difference in mask wear between Idaho and Washington. Just visit a town on the other side of the border. (Of course, with the recent object lesson provided by the spread of Covid-19 among the national Republican leadership, mask wear is becoming more common everywhere–for good reason.)

Back in July the sensible majority on the Panhandle Health District Board voted 4-2 to mandate mask wear in Kootenai County (the Idaho County directly east of Spokane County). The Panhandle Health District (PHD) is authorized by law to protect the health of the citizens of all five north Idaho counties. The mask mandate applies only to Kootenai County, the most densely populated of the five counties. To attend the meetings or read the news coverage of this vote you would think that mandating mask wear were a terrible, grave endangerment to life, not the straightforward public health measure it clearly is. 

If the openly armed (why?) protesters outside the meeting in July weren’t enough, the far right Idaho State legislators from the northern counties recently waded in with a doozy of a letter, part of which was quoted in the Bonner County Daily Bee on October 1.

“We, the majority of state legislators from the five northern counties, are concerned about the continuing mask mandate in Kootenai County,” the letter dated Sept. 29 reads. “This order, first passed by your board in July, carries the force of law and is highly upsetting to many of the citizens we represent.”

God knows, you’d better not “upset” a far right Republican with an AR-15 and a bandolier. The eleven state legislators who signed wrote: “Idahoans value their freedom to make decisions for themselves…Treating adults like children results in defiance of the orders and diminishes the credibility of the health board in future concerns.” It strikes me that these legislators, apparently thinking they have nothing better with which to occupy their time, are acting the part of children, not adults. No, no, no, nobody can tell me I have to wear a mask! …Even if I know it is the right thing to do!

At least one of these legislators doesn’t object to mask wear when it is “required by an institution,” except when that institution is an arm of government. [Idaho State Senator [(R) Coeur d’Alene] Mary Souza: “I personally wear a mask when I’m in an institution that requires it, but I think it’s an individual choice. The situation we have here is: Where is the line between government telling people what they have to do for their health and people making their own choice?” 

This is asinine, but not so asinine as this argument: 

 [Idaho State Rep (R) Coeur d’Alene] Jim Addis said he signed the letter because local law officials say the size and scope of the [mask] mandate is impossible to enforce.

Think about that. A mandate or a law ought to be rescinded because it “is impossible to enforce.” The dictionary defines “enforce” as “compel observance of or compliance with.” I have a “No Trespassing” sign on my property. There are laws against trespass. Since there isn’t a law enforcement officer immediately available to arrest each person who sets foot on my property in clear violation of my sign and trespass law, by Addis’ logic we need to toss out such laws. While we’re at it, we’d best rescind laws against rape and murder, since law enforcement is clearly incapable of “compelling observance” of these laws as well.

A mask mandate or a mask requirement is more an expression of decency, a societal norm, a recognition that we’re all in this together; we need to wear masks for now in order protect each other; mask wear is a sign of mutual respect. Most citizens of Washington aren’t chaffing against the state’s mask requirement. The mask requirement is a public health tool. The fact of its enactment commands attention. That is the purpose of the requirement. No one expects law officers to arrest every person who forgets their mask any more than we expect law officers to cite every person who exceeds the speed limit or walks across a lawn in violation of a No Trespassing sign. On the other hand, those who flout the mandate, by grandstanding their refusal, those people are asking to be cited–and they can spend their time dealing with the consequences in court, just like others who flout regulations.

I cannot believe that the general attitudes toward public health on the two sides of the Idaho/Washington border explain the difference in mask wear in the two areas. The difference is the mandated recognition of the public health importance of wearing masks. The mandate is an educational tool, not a cudgel.

Large segments of the Republican Party–from Trump right on down–display their adolescent disdain for common sense regulation by wasting the time of the rest of us as they parade their belligerence. They don’t deserve the dignity of public office. Keep the Ammon Bundys, Loren Culps and Rob Chases out of public office and vote out the McCaslin Juniors and Jenny Grahams currently wasting our time there. Let’s get on with addressing real problems.

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. Doug Muder: Many political movements fail by believing their own rhetoric, and Trump has been saying for a long time that the virus isn’t a big deal; we should all just get back to normal as fast as possible. Among Trumpists, mask-wearing and other good public-health practices are looked on as wimpy, as “living in fear“. (Packing heat at the supermarket, on the other hand, is just a reasonable precaution.)