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As the coronavirus continues to ravage America’s health and devastate its economy, here in Orange County the politics of face coverings continues its downward spiral.
Last week, a coalition of local labor leaders held a demonstration in Santa Ana calling on the county to reinstate the recently revoked local requirement for the wearing of masks in public settings, only to find themselves harassed and shouted down by an aggressive group of anti-mask counter-protesters. The previous week had seen Orange County’s Public Health Officer, Dr. Nichole Quick, submit her resignation in response to pressure from the Board of Supervisors and local GOP officials, reinforced by outright verbal abuse and other kinds of maltreatment from a vocal minority of the public. At the first meeting following her departure, in the face of intense public pressure, her replacement immediately rescinded her recent directive requiring face coverings.
These events are a sad commentary on the current state of affairs with respect to official guidance and public leadership on the coronavirus crisis. Dr. Quick was, after all, only doing her job, which was to keep us all healthy and safe. In doing so, she was firmly guided by both empirical science and best practices from all over the world. The labor leaders, for their part, were merely highlighting the alarming reality that the recently loosened mask policy had put workers, especially frontline grocery and healthcare workers, at a materially increased level of risk of infection.
The changes in mask policy and the angry noise around it are disturbing evidence of the politicization of what should be a strictly science-driven approach, as well as a disheartening reflection of the quality of leadership we’ve seen from our local elected officials since the beginning of this crisis.
We are now seeing the unfortunate consequences of that approach: over the past few weeks, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Orange County have steadily increased, with no relief in sight. Just this week, the LA Times published a data analysis showing that Orange County, in addition to three other suburban Southern California counties, is primarily responsible for a troubling rise in California’s coronavirus hospitalizations.
Governor Newsom’s recent statewide directive requiring the wearing of face coverings in public is a welcome development. The wearing of masks in public is a mildly inconvenient but eminently sensible precaution that will save lives. A recent study found that face masks reduce the rate of COVID-19 infections by as much as 40%, while another concluded that wearing face masks in public is the most effective means to prevent transmission. Donning a face covering is just as much about protecting others as it is about protecting oneself, a way of saying, “I care about your health and safety, as I would hope you would do for mine.”
The wearing of face coverings should be encouraged by our leaders, not demonized. In the wake of the Governor’s recent directive, we should also have confidence that the new statewide requirement will be enforced locally– consistently and uniformly. Unfortunately, we have no such assurance. Orange County’s Sheriff has made clear on multiple occasions that he will not compel his officers to enforce mask wearing or other preventative requirements, offering weakly that “it is each person’s responsibility to wear a face covering, and follow other recommended safeguards, in order to stop the spread of COVID-19” (it’s tempting to point out that it’s also each person’s responsibility not to cause accidents, but that’s not necessarily grounds for making traffic lights voluntary).
If there’s anything more disconcerting than watching the rise of an ideologically driven, vitriolic and bullying opposition to commonsense precautions designed to keep us all a little safer, it’s the deafening silence from the so-called public servants charged with safeguarding that safety in response.
SARS-CoV-2, as it is technically known, has no ideology. It cares not one iota how people feel about face masks, or individual rights, or the state of our economy. Its sole purpose is to reproduce and spread at the expense of its human hosts.
It’s high time that our elected officials at every level, from city councils to the Board of Supervisors to the state legislature, do what’s right, by actively soliciting and then effectively applying the guidance of public health experts and science in the fight against COVID-19. As a wise person said recently, “You may think you’re done with the coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is done with you.”
Josh Newman is a veterans advocate and former Democratic State Senator who currently lives in Fullerton. Newman is running again for the 29th Senate District seat in November.
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