Jana Riess: Memo to anti-maskers — You are the reason we can’t have nice things

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Kim Phung, left, from Bountiful walks on Main Street, with her daughters, Jasmine and Addy, in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday, June 26, 2020.

Back in late May, members of the media were up in arms about two hairdressers in Missouri who continued cutting hair even after they began to feel the symptoms of COVID-19. Together, the two stylists did the hair of 139 people, who then went home to their families totally unaware that they had been exposed to the disease and could now be infecting others.

Experts predicted a potentially deadly “superspreader” situation. Springfield, Mo., was watched carefully as a new epicenter of the disease. People braced for the worst.

Only the worst didn’t happen. Not one of the 139 clients of the salon tested positive for the disease. They did not spread it to their family members. The illness died right there with the hair clippings on the salon floor, a total yawn, a nothingburger.

What led to this unexpected reprieve? Did Springfield just get lucky 140 times in succession?

What could have been a disaster has instead become a data point about life in #coronatide, proof positive that face masks work. The stylists and the patrons all wore masks when they interacted with one another at the salon, and that apparently made a world of difference, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report this week. “Adherence to the community’s and company’s face-covering policy,” the CDC noted, “likely mitigated spread of SARS-CoV-2.”

The fact that masks, even homemade cloth ones, are this effective should come as terrific news for all of us as we wait for an effective vaccine to become widely available. Since that wait could take many months in even the best-case scenario, we want to learn best practices about how to live in the interim without shutting down our economy and schools. As such we should all be rejoicing that such a simple, safe, cheap and effective strategy to stop the spread is within our reach.

Instead, millions of Americans are resisting.

This morning I woke up to the news that Georgia’s governor has reversed mayors’ mask ordinances, overriding the decisions of cities like Atlanta and Savannah and declaring their mask requirement “a bridge too far.”

In Florida, anti-mask activists have flouted Orlando’s mask rules, offering free meals to people who eat out without wearing a mask and yelling at law enforcement officers that mask ordinances are wrong and un-American.

And in Utah last night, anti-mask protesters crowded into a Provo government building to complain about a state mandate for Utah schoolchildren to wear masks in the fall, when schools reopen.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angry residents react when the Utah County Commission meeting was adjourned before it even started. The group protesting against masks being required in schools removed the social distancing tape on the chairs and filled the Utah County Commission room to overflowing, prompting Commissioner Tanner Ainge to call for a vote to adjourn the meeting in Provo, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020.

Coronavirus cases are surging in all three of those states, so they don’t have the luxury to allow their misguided and selfish understanding of what freedom is to rule the day. We are in a public health crisis. We need to be thinking about freedom for everyone.

Abraham Lincoln said in 1859 that “those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” He was speaking of slaveholding, not masks, but the principle is applicable here. In the name of preserving their own freedom, anti-maskers are denying freedom to others. It’s no accident that in the same executive order in which Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp rescinded all local ordinances that instructed people in various cities to wear masks, he also required any Georgians who are vulnerable to the virus — including many of the elderly and people with certain health conditions — to stay home and shelter in place.

Of course he did. But when the freedoms of the vulnerable are not as important as the freedoms of the healthy, it is a perversion of the idea of freedom.

The ironies abound. In the name of saving the economy, anti-mask activists are actively working to dismantle the economy, because stores and restaurants will have more customers and greater economic success when masks are a basic given. Masks work most effectively in a community when everyone wears them, because this virus can spread easily from asymptomatic and presymptomatic people, not just those who are actively sneezing in your face.

It’s a privilege that we live in a nation that prizes freedom, but for at least a century, that has not been an unchecked freedom. Through the decades, our courts have imposed some limits on First Amendment rights. For example, you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater because that would endanger the lives of others (Schenck v. United States, 1919). It’s not an accident that this limitation on freedom happened during wartime, when the court ruled that national interest could sometimes outweigh individual rights.

At this moment, we are all enlisted in a war against this virus, and we need to understand that our individual “rights” may be temporarily curtailed so we can save human lives. Refusing to wear a mask in public is a selfish act that endangers the lives and livelihoods of others. It goes against the best ideals of the American nation.

Please, anti-maskers, put your country before yourselves.

Editor’s noteThe views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.