Gerald Elias: Public health measures through the years were called ‘demagoguery’

It is the government’s job to protect our health and safety with laws and regulations.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People fill the room as the Salt Lake County Council voted down Dr. Angela Dunn's mask ordinance for K-6 students, on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

A couple weeks ago, Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, recommended a facemask mandate for public schools. Outraged, the Salt Lake County Council met in emergency session and overrode the recommendation, prohibiting schools from requiring masks.

Many parents were appalled, but, seemingly, just as many others were jubilant, celebrating the council’s decision as a defense of their individual rights, and accusing Dunn of playing politics with their children, of “demagoguery.”

I just want to say a few words in response the accusation of demagoguery when it comes to a mask mandate. OK, more than a few.

When I was a kid, there were no seatbelt laws. Mothers sat in the front seat holding their children in their laps. Picture the carnage. Seatbelt laws were passed. From 1975-2017 an estimated 375,000 lives have been saved, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Yet, some said that we were being deprived of our rights, that it was demagoguery.

When I was a kid, there was a “proud” American tradition of people throwing trash out their car windows, everything from cans to bottles to paper wrappers. Our highways and backroads looked like garbage dumps. Littering laws were passed. Some said that the fines were onerous, that it was demagoguery.

When I was a kid, there were no pooper-scooper laws. Imagine what that looked like, especially if you stepped in it. (Yicch!) Laws were passed. Some said it was unenforceable, that it was demagoguery.

When I was a kid, there were no clean water laws. As the ultimate embarrassment, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire. The Clean Water Act was passed. American Rivers figures billions of pounds of pollutants have been kept out of our rivers and streams. Some said that it was anti-business, that it was demagoguery.

When I was a kid, there were no clean air laws. The air over Pittsburgh cloaked in noxious black smog and acid rain from Ohio industrial plants blew eastward and killed every living animal in innumerable New England lakes. The Clean Air Act was passed. An estimated 150,000-230,000 lives per year have been saved, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some said it was anti-industry, that it was demagoguery.

All of these laws and regulations we now view as common-sense public policy that keeps our society safe and comfortable. We hardly give them a second thought. But, if you don’t like one, or it’s not working well, you have choices. You can lobby your elected representatives to change it, or you can vote for different representatives. That’s what elections are for. It’s the way the process of policy change in our democracy was intended to work. There is nothing innately heinous about a policy you don’t like.

When Dunn recommended the mandate, supported by school districts, that children wear facemasks to school, it was in order to keep children, and the teachers, and their families safe from a deadly pandemic, and in order to bring as swift an end as possible to this pandemic — which has been extended unnecessarily by an ill-advised ideological false narrative — with the least intrusive, most effective way possible. And some have mistakenly called this prudent public health policy demagoguery. Please don’t be fooled.

Keith Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune Violinist Gerald Elias June 12, 2012 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Gerald Elias is an author and musician. He was a long-time Utah resident but has recently moved to Seattle to be a hands-on grandfather.