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What a novel concept: people taking small, reasonable actions to limit risk to themselves and others. Based on the ongoing pushback against wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic, one would almost assume we haven’t been balancing individual liberties with public safety for almost 250 years here in America.
This balance is constant in American life and in law, whether it’s businesses requiring people to wear shirts or shoes, or governments requiring people to wear seatbelts. So while the uncertainty and confusion of the COVID-19 pandemic has been new, this idea of requiring people to take a minimally disruptive step to protect themselves and other people is well established.
Of all the COVID-19 government requirements and recommendations — the list is dizzying, to be sure — wearing a mask or other face covering is among the least restrictive. And as we, and the U.S. surgeon general, have argued, wearing a mask can actually promote freedom rather than limit it.
This is a case when people aren’t being asked to curtail their normal activities, they’re being asked to take an additional safety precaution as they go about their normal activities — particularly in public spaces where they are close together. It frankly should be a no-brainer in the shared effort to reopen Maine safely.
“Mask wearing has become politicized and businesses want to avoid being seen as taking one political side or the other so they don’t alienate any of their customers,” Dr. Noah Nesin, vice president of medical affairs at Penobscot Community Health Care, told the BDN. “And when masks become a definition of a political stance that becomes even more problematic but from a public health perspective, you know clearly the right thing is for everybody when they’re inside the store to be wearing a mask.”
Wearing a mask is not a political statement, at least it shouldn’t be. It’s a statement about respect for the advice of public health officials, respect for a growing body of scientific research and, perhaps most importantly, respect for the health and well-being of other people.
Sure, wearing a mask sacrifices your liberty to not look a little dorky. It abridges your freedom of facial expression. But it also can reduce the risk of spreading the virus, and that is something that should be as popular across the political spectrum as lobster and whoopie pies.
The failure of some businesses, particularly large chains, to enforce Maine’s face covering requirement is disappointing. As we’ve said before, businesses have an opportunity and responsibility to lead by giving consumers confidence about safety during the pandemic. But we can understand their hesitancy to put employees in tense and difficult situations with people who refuse to wear masks even in stores where social distancing is difficult, or to have to try to distinguish between the people who don’t want to wear them from the people who can’t wear them because of a medical condition.
“We have not required stores to police local mandates, because it can be dangerous to put our associates in that position,” a Home Depot spokesperson told the BDN on Friday. That says as much about the level and tenor of resistance from customers than it does about the businesses.
President Donald Trump recently suggested to the Wall Street Journal that some Americans might wear masks to show their disapproval of him. While we seriously doubt that’s the case, we’ll make this appeal: Don’t base your decision about wearing a mask on whether you like the president.
Please make that decision based on the available science, your compassion and concern for your fellow community members and an understanding that small, individual steps like this can make a big difference in making the reopening process safer and quicker. It should be an easy one.