Opinion: Mask fights are missing the point
COVID-19 is surging across Kansas. Over 1,200 Kansans have died. Hospitals are strained. Some Americans are experiencing second infections, threatening the herd immunity dream.
Many of us are just surviving. Knowing COVID-19 is serious. Often wearing masks when out, whether government says to or not. Wanting schools open. Maybe attending church. Trying to see friends. But knowing the risks.
Many of us live in hopelessly divided realities. For some, COVID-19 is an emergency and masks are required. For others, COVID-19 is exaggerated, and masks are avoided and perhaps offensive.
Many of us fight over masks as a political symbol, pretending that government can actually force one on you. It can’t. We fight anyway.
Gov. Laura Kelly issued a mask mandate in July. The Republican Legislature overruled her. Power then fell on county governments, and most rejected mask requirements.
Politics elsewhere hasn’t always played out similarly.
Conservative Republican governors in Wyoming, Utah, Alabama, Ohio and West Virginia have mandated masks, sometimes with fines.
In Georgia, Texas and Florida, conservatives have centralized power in state government to block local control and keep counties from passing or enforcing local mask ordinances.
But generally, many of us are fighting over the idea that government can somehow make people wear masks.
One side says mask mandates are good and can reduce infections if everyone complies.
Mandate supporters often overestimate enforcement and willingness to comply. In communities with mask mandates, police, health departments, businesses and sometimes even schools don’t enforce them. Enforcement is often mythical.
One side says mask mandates are bad. This side is divided, however, between those who believe that masks should just be optional and those who are actually anti-mask.
Mandate opponents exaggerate the power of government to force compliance. As if the governor will ticket you herself for going maskless and tape one on your face. As if real enforcement exists.
Both stories are oversimplified talking points.
First, a statewide mask mandate isn’t realistically happening in Kansas. The debate is politically moot.
Second, short of vaccines or better treatments, stopping COVID-19 is on us as citizens. Sure, government can factor into that — school and bar closures, testing availability, encouraging masks.
But government isn’t going to put a mask on you. Realistically, government isn’t going to punish you for going maskless. Government isn’t going to stop you from partying, eating out or attending church.
Government cannot control you, despite scary arguments from politicians or paid political operatives. No matter what government says in any “mandate,” wearing a mask is your choice. Choosing businesses based on their mask enforcement is your choice. Your health is your choice. It always was.
The mandate isn’t the point. Your choices are the point.
Of course, that freedom means that we will continue to live in our separate, alienated realities.
Kansans who religiously wear masks and avoid businesses that don’t require them are free to continue. Mask opponents can’t control them.
Kansans who avoid masks and businesses that require them are free to continue. Mask supporters can’t control them.
Kansans who are just trying to survive this mess while politics fights over symbolism — you get to keep it up. Hopefully avoiding COVID-19. Hopefully not seeing masks as political statements. Hopefully rising above distorted political fantasies. Hopefully finding social support to thrive and be healthy, even if you’re ultimately on your own to protect yourself.
— Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.