Robert Gehrke: Why mandating face masks isn’t the horrible abuse of freedom some think it is

What do Darth Vader, Batman and the Lone Ranger have in common?

None of them has contracted COVID-19. And they all wear masks (albeit maybe not the right kind).

It doesn’t take a superhero or uber villain to understand that masks are a crucial component as we try to maintain a functioning economy and social environment and keep the coronavirus wildfire from tearing through our communities.

But how often have you been in public and seen a disheartening number of people who don’t seem to grasp the concept? I’ll answer it for you: Too often.

So Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday indicated he would meet with his leadership team Thursday and would likely approve a request by Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City to allow them to make masks mandatory in workplaces or public gatherings — if the data supports it. This came a day after the governor fretted that the requirement would “create divisive enforcement issues at a time when we need to come together of our own accord around a shared concern for one another’s health.”

The data supporting the broad use of masks is clear and growing by the day.

While health officials offered confusing and contradictory information early on about the efficacy of face coverings, the guidance now from the World Health Organization on down to our local health departments is clear: Wearing masks helps prevent the spread of coronavirus and reduces the chances of contracting the disease.

Research published last week looked at face mask mandates from the period before the mandates were in place to three weeks after. The growth in cases declined 2%, which may not sound like much but, the authors approximate, could mean between 230,000 and 450,000 fewer cases nationwide.

An earlier study predicted that if 80% of the population wore masks the spread of the disease could be reduced by more than 90%.

Then there’s the Utah data that shows what we’re doing now isn’t working: More than 3,400 new cases in the last week, nearly 500 per day, the fourth-highest number of cases per capita in the country. Add in hospital occupancy and the increasing number of people in the Intensive Care Unit and it’s a bleak picture.

Ideally, when faced with that reality, people would come together, as Herbert envisioned, out of a “shared concern for one another’s health.” The vast majority of us do recognize the importance of wearing a mask, not necessarily for ourselves, but because of the thousands upon thousands of Utahns who are elderly or have health issues and for whom contracting the coronavirus could be a death sentence.

Too many, unfortunately, are either ignorant of the benefits of wearing masks, too lazy to be inconvenienced, or indifferent to the risks. Others have used it as an opportunity to make a loud, definitive political statement. That statement is something along the lines of: “I am a self-obsessed jerk unwilling to be even the slightest bit inconvenienced in order to save lives and protect a fragile economy.”

They take their cues from a president who seems to become more unhinged by the day and ridicules common sense preventative measures like masks and social distancing with an appalling disregard for the consequences.

Republican Salt Lake County Councilman Steve DeBry likened the mask issue, appropriately, to smoking laws.

“Someone has a right to smoke a cigarette,” DeBry said. “Fine, but I have a right to not inhale it.”

And let’s be honest, the risk of being exposed to coronavirus is far greater — and the health effects potentially much more profound — than the threat posed by a whiff of second-hand cigarette smoke.

This mandate is, unfortunately, necessary because appealing to this crowd’s sense of reason and caring and community and altruism was never going to work.

If you’ve been to Costco or Whole Foods, you know that businesses already had the right to refuse service to customers refusing to wear masks, but that is an imperfect and impractical solution.

“It’s just really hard for a retailer to go it alone because of the competitive environment out there,” said Dave Davis, president of the Utah Retailers Association, “so I think it’s one of the few times government leading out and saying, ‘This is what the standard is going to be,’ and creating a level playing field for everyone is a good thing.”

Moreover, for residents of the county, now there would be uniformity. It’s not an option that varies from place to place. When you leave the house, you need your pants, wallet, cellphone and a stylish mask.

Will there be blowback if masks become mandatory? Of course.

“There will be people who will continue to make the case that this is an overreach,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, “but we pass laws for health and safety all the time. And if there were ever a time we need to enforce a health initiative that matters, it’s now. I find that to be really hollow and misguided thinking.”

So yes, you can probably count on that small number of strident never-maskers — I’ve called them Petri Dish Patriots — to throw tantrums and probably stage some mask-burning downtown and exercise their right to be profoundly stupid.

The rest of us, no matter what county we live in, should welcome these new rules (if they come) out of a sense of community and value of life. And we absolutely should wear our masks.