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In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Janet Mills and other leaders sought to reassure a skittish public that “we’re all in this together.” We all needed to sacrifice — by staying home as much as possible, by closing restaurants to in-person dining, by putting off nonemergency medical care and later by wearing a mask — they said, so that our health care system wouldn’t be overrun and fewer people would be felled by the virus.
Two months after Mills and other governors instituted emergency orders and as states allow the resumption of many everyday activities, albeit still in restricted ways, this sense of community togetherness has frayed.
We see it in people who refuse to wear a mask to enter a store. We see it in restaurants that open when they are ordered to remain closed, drawing a crowd of diners cheering for “freedom” and “rights.” We see it in tourists who say that quarantines make sense but that they won’t be following them.
To be clear, polls show the majority of Mainers and Americans support the restrictions that have been put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Most, in fact, also support keeping many restrictions in place even as they are being lifted.
A minority of people, who have organized and joined protests in Augusta and around the country, are vocal and have gotten a lot of attention.
Their attempts to equate government edicts about wearing masks to tyranny are foolish. Governments are trying, albeit imperfectly, to keep everyone safe. That, of course, is one important role of government, and it is what infused the American notion of the public good — sometimes we must do things that we don’t like or want in order to benefit our common good.
But America was also built with a strong strain of individual liberty.
In this case, when a sufficient number of people assert their liberty and refuse to abide by these orders and guidelines, they put others at risk.
That is how the mask debate and other arguments about government measures aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus have come to symbolize the breakdown of our common community.
“The pandemic is presenting this classic individual liberty-common good equation,” Maine journalist and author Colin Woodard recently told the Associated Press. “And the ethos of different parts of the country about this is very, very different. And it’s pulling the country in all these different directions.”
“The pandemic and dealing with it successfully does require cooperation. It also requires shared sacrifice. And that’s a very bitter pill for many Americans to swallow,” Lenette Azzi-Lessing, a clinical professor of social work at Boston University who studies economic disparity, told the AP. “The pandemic is revealing that our fates are intertwined, that the person in front of us in line in the grocery store, if he or she doesn’t have access to good health care, that that’s going to have an effect on our health.”
That is the common denominator, with coronavirus and other aspects of life: When the choices we make affect other people, we are no longer just individuals, we are part of a collective. And thus doing things for the common good will benefit us, too. Maybe not in every case, maybe not immediately and maybe not as much as we’d like. But that is the trade-off that for generations has kept America the envy of much of the world.
Americans rightly treasure the freedoms we enjoy in our democracy. Please don’t forget that this includes the freedom to consider the needs and safety of your neighbors.
So, if you want business to more fully reopen, if you want schools to hold in-person classes, if you miss being around people and not having to wear a face mask in public, take responsible action now — by following government guidelines — to get coronavirus under control.
“Now is the time, if ever there was one,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force, told graduates of his alma mater, College of the Holy Cross, this weekend, “for us to care selflessly about one another.”
Watch: What does returning to normal look like?