Beshear’s mask directive unmasks division, but why?

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear holds up a face mask while speaking about the novel coronavirus during a news conference at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky., Sunday, April 26, 2020. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

Let’s talk masks. The novel coronavirus has steered our digest discussions into numerous places, from social distancing to past pandemics to worst-case scenarios to the folly of projections. My intention for this edition of the digest was to begin to talk about economic difficulty we now face and the importance not just of sequencing but of timing in the challenge to reopen the economy.

Then Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said that, in advance of Kentucky’s reopening, he would be asking everyone to wear a mask in public settings where social distancing isn’t possible, beginning May 11.

And that is where the discussion has settled. I’ve encountered more angst over this than I saw over the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. So in the time-honored media tradition of running after the latest shiny thing, let’s run for a little bit.

I’m not kidding – people who two weeks ago were loudly cheering on protesters (who were themselves wearing masks, by choice) demanding to go back to work now are angry about the governor having the audacity to say they have to wear a mask in order to allow the restart plans to move a bit more quickly. Literally, the same guy who wrote to me explaining how the protesters wearing masks was appropriate (and he was right) now is writing to me explaining how a governor asking them to wear a mask is “draconian.”

So, of course, I fully expect to see mask-wearing protesters outside the capitol voicing their opposition to … masks.

Anyway, this is not going to be a definitive discussion, because there is no definitive science on the matter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after initially telling Americans not to wear masks, now advises simple cloth face coverings to help prevent the asymptomatic spread of the virus. It’s not to protect the wearer; it’s to protect everyone else, in the interests of public health. A covering can slow the aerosolization of droplets, if not stop it, and therefore, it is reasoned, can potentially slow the spread of the virus, to a degree.

President Donald Trump, basically, said wear ‘em if you’ve got ‘em, and if you want to. The World Health Organization, on the other hand, does not advise the wearing of face coverings unless you’re a medical worker or caring for someone with the virus.

Deborah Birx, who heads up the White House Coronavirus Task Force, had comments of particular interest to me on this.

“The most important thing is the social distancing and washing your hands,” she said. “And we don’t want people to get an artificial sense of protection because they’re behind a mask.”

The Mayo Clinic, a trusted source in this nation, says, “Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the disease.”

But it must be combined with proper hygiene and distancing. Still, preprints of studies of COVID-19 and masks suggest that they do help.

An article in The Lancet noted two things that caught my attention.

One, “As evidence suggests COVID-19 could be transmitted before symptom onset, community transmission might be reduced if everyone, including people who have been infected but are asymptomatic and contagious, wear face masks.”

That seems pretty straightforward. As a matter of public health (not individual health, but we’re talking the overall group here), everyone wearing a mask, at least in close situations, might reduce community transmission. What’s the harm, right?

Apparently, there is harm. At least, some people tell me there is. They seem personally offended at the notion of wearing a mask. I don’t get that. What I do get are the arguments against it from another standpoint. In the same Lancet article comes this: “People in some regions (eg, Thailand, China, and Japan) opted for makeshift alternatives or repeated usage of disposable surgical masks. Notably, improper use of face masks, such as not changing disposable masks, could jeopardize the protective effect and even increase the risk of infection.”

So here, a makeshift mask or re-used disposable mask could actually cause more harm than good. (If you’re wishing to reuse a regular surgical mask, you can spray it with isopropyl alcohol and let it sit for five minutes, or pop it into a regular oven at 140 degrees for 15 minutes or so — no seasoning needed.)

So what are we to make of all this?

Luckily, here, everyone has the option of exercising his or her best judgment. And as long as that judgment is exercised with good hygiene and proper social distancing – and with staying out of crowds if you’re sick – we should be all right. (Can the governor issue an order for people to act like they have some sense?) Follow the science you want to follow, the advice you want to embrace. But don’t make a call based on some perceived political stance – because politicians on both sides have advocated for masks, and warned against them.

Don’t be stirred up by people who are trying to stir you up. I heard a radio host on Monday call Beshear’s mask request “draconian.”

If this were a draconian measure, it would be accompanied by a hefty fine or jail time. Listen to Kentucky’s “draconian” governor when asked about that on Monday.

“Nobody’s going to get cited. Nobody’s going to get arrested,” Beshear said. “But if you’re not doing your part, you’re that exception that spreads the coronavirus. Don’t be that person. Be that person that realizes this is our next step, and lets us do more and get out more. . . . “Nobody’s going to get punished, individually, for not wearing one of these. But isn’t it your duty?”

In terms of businesses, Beshear was more firm.

“On businesses,” he said, “this is mandatory. If a business is not masking, that could be grounds, ultimately, to temporarily shut down that business. Grocery stores and others, we’re going to certainly give any forward-facing businesses as we reopen the ability to not serve those that are not masked. It’s your job, when you’ve got one of those, to ensure the safety of everybody inside.”

In other words, look for the signs: “No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.” It seems strange to me that no one objects to the shirt and shoes part of that. It has become commonplace. So have, “No smoking” signs. There was a fight over that, but public health won. This isn’t, however, a fight for permanent change. The mask request is temporary (though I’m doubtful myself over the notion that this should be the new normal until a vaccine is available).

In any event, this doesn’t need to be yet another issue that divides us. I’ll let you know, I’m going to wear a mask. Not because I think I have the virus, but because I think that if everyone wore a mask, we could save a few people. And because wearing a mask isn’t going to hurt anyone else. In situations like this, it’s important not just to help if you can, but to keep from hurting others if you can. And given the nature of this virus, for me not to wear a mask could wind up hurting others. As Trump said, “What’s the harm?”

There are some people who have good reason for worrying about masks. My friend Jamie Vaught, a sports columnist, photographer and author in Middlesboro, Ky., is hearing impaired and relies on lip-reading to communicate. Jamie lives by the Golden Rule. He says that wearing masks seems to him to be beneficial for everybody, so he’s going to do it. It’s more of an inconvenience to him than it is to you, most likely. He has a better excuse than most to get on social media and rant and rave. He does not. But if he sees you and wants to talk to you, he may ask you to take your mask off.

There are other cases where masks just might not work. I don’t know how you parents with young kids will work that.

If you don’t wear a mask, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. I’m not going to say anything. Others may think worse of you. I hope not. But I know better.

“A mask tells us more than a face,” poet and playwright Oscar Wilde said.

That may never be more true than during a pandemic.

The main things in all of this are that we act with good sense, that we try to deal with others who don’t feel the way we do with some grace, that we remember they may have challenges we know nothing about, and that we try, as best we can, not to do anything that will do harm to someone else.

There are going to be some people who don’t care. There always are. Remember the ones who do. Focus on them.

I’m from Kentucky. I know how we are. We are the most generous, fun-loving, stubborn, maddening, opinionated, know-it-all bunch of people to come down the pike. You folks in southern Indiana recognize the description. It fits many of you, too. But when push comes to shove, our hearts, as a whole, are overwhelmingly in the right place.

This state has weathered more than 40 days under wraps with an overwhelming level of commendable perseverance.

I have no doubt that once the reins are eased, we will spring back to work with enthusiasm and, if we don’t turn on each other and we can get back to work reasonably soon, will be a state that is pointed to as one that acquitted itself with distinction in a time of national crisis.

We’re never going to completely get along. We’re going to be Cardinals and Wildcats. Democrats and Republicans. City and country. Mask and no mask. I don’t doubt that friendships could end over this. Financial choices, which businesses to support and which not, will be made over this issue. There will be people who decide to attend church based on whether people there are wearing masks. That’s a tough choice to make.

(It shouldn’t be a tough call. The Bible does tell us, after all, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.” As one of the vulnerable, I’ve shared with you that I’ll do my part by staying out of crowded situations. But clearly, there’s also a part to play if you aren’t part of a vulnerable population.)

As a country, we are more divided than we’ve ever been. Look at cable news. Fox News just had the most-watched month in its history. If you combine the two left-leaning networks, CNN and MSNBC, they had roughly the same viewership. Actually a tad higher. We can share an experience, but there is no shared set of facts, even.

Regardless, let’s try to remember that we all want to get through this. We all want as few people sick or dead as we can manage. We all want to get back to some semblance of life, to providing for families, worshipping together, going to schools and colleges, watching our teams, and yes, seeing a Kentucky Derby. We are on our way back to all of those. Let’s try to get there without tearing each other apart.