Editorial: Masks are for protection of others, not political symbols
Rules imposed to mitigate the impact of the novel coronavirus have been stringent and painful. It is understandable that they would attract complaints and debate. But there may be no reaction to the rules that is more disappointing than the evolution of protective facial covering into a political statement.
What could be less controversial than a recommendation from the finest medical minds in the country that all people wear covering over their noses and mouths to prevent the continued spread of a disease that already has brought the world to its knees and may yet have worse to offer?
Sadly, the wisdom of that advice has escaped the leader who portrays himself as a "war president" in the nation's fight against COVID-19. So, instead of calling for Americans to unify around it, President Donald Trump has chosen to divide the country by flouting it. The result is something that extends far beyond the president's own political sphere and poisons dialogue at the most basic levels.
Proud naysayers post social media videos of themselves defying store clerks. Self-styled champions of individual rights share memes and write long diatribes declaring their rights to accept whatever risk they want. And, on the floor of the Illinois House Wednesday, an Illinois lawmaker, a presumed leader of his community, chose to use the mask for political theater rather than to protect his own staff members, his fellow lawmakers and the many ancillary workers required to conduct the state's business during a General Assembly session.
It is sad enough that state Rep. Darren Bailey, a Louisville Republican, was unwilling to heed the universal advice of health experts for his own safety. It is sadder still that he would not recognize -- or selfishly ignores -- the fundamental function of face covering during a pandemic.
The face mask is not a restriction of freedom. It is not a sign of fear. It is not even an item of personal protection for the wearer.
It is an item of protection for all the people with whom the wearer may come in contact.
Chicago Democrat Michael Zalewski gave earnest expression to this fact when he appealed to Bailey to think beyond himself.
"If you're not going to do it for your own personal volition, please do it for the staff that work incredibly hard to stand up, a temporary House chamber for three straight days, of important workers, the first responders here," Zalewsky pleaded in remarks reported at the Capitol Fax website.
Bailey refused and was expelled, though he returned on Thursday wearing a mask.
On Thursday, President Trump reportedly wore a mask during a private portion of his tour of a Ford Motor Co. plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, but pointedly refused to abide by the company's and the state's requirement that he wear one elsewhere in the factory. He said he "didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it."
With respect, Mr. President and Rep. Bailey, it's not the press that needs to see you in a mask. It's the people who are living in an age of pandemic and need your guidance. It is not a culture war we should be waging. It is a war against a virulent pandemic.
Victory in that war requires unity and leadership. Where we can't get the leadership, we must fend for ourselves.
We've said it before in the early days of this fight; we say it again as the battle wears tirelessly on: The mask is not a political statement. It is a shield to protect others. For their sake, have the decency to wear it.