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Murphy: Opposition to face masks getting heated
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Murphy: Opposition to face masks getting heated

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The year 2020 will be remembered for many things — so many things of an historic nature that I fear one of the most remarkable events may be lost to the history books:

The inexplicable, yet great mask debate.

Before we go any further, a clarification: There is no real debate here, at least not in the traditional sense, and not among the voices that matter. According to medical and public health officials, in order to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Americans should wear masks whenever they cannot keep 6 feet of distance between themselves and others, especially indoors. On that, there is no debate.

Among the American public, unfortunately, the debate that shouldn’t be rages on — emphasis, in some disturbing cases, on rage.

Some of the scenes from recent weeks have been remarkable. When Palm Beach County, Florida, proposed requiring citizens to wear masks in public, residents at a public hearing provided colorful if not quite informed commentary. And videos showing individuals throwing temper tantrums in grocery stores that are requiring customers wear masks have gone viral on social media.

It is staggering to watch a simple public health decree to cause grown — physically, if apparently not emotionally — adults to act like petulant toddlers who were just told they had to eat their vegetables before they get dessert. In one of the aforementioned videos, a woman protests the store’s mask requirement by chucking the contents of her cart in the store.

The unimaginably overbearing commandment that drove these people over the brink: that they wear a piece of cloth or plastic over their nose and mouth for a little bit, in order to help protect the people around them.

Part of the problem may be that too many people still do not realize the role of masks and other face coverings amid the pandemic. If I had a nickel for every time I heard or read someone say, “I don’t wear a mask because it’s a personal choice, and I don’t fear getting the virus,” I wouldn’t be writing this column because I’d be playing golf on my own personal course that I paid Rory McIlroy to design.

The problem with that sentiment is you’re not wearing the mask for yourself; you’re wearing it for the people around you. As a reminder to some and in case anyone still has not heard: according to infectious disease and public health experts, wearing a mask protects those around you by reducing the number of potentially infected droplets that come out of your mouth. But you can still contract the virus by other means, including touching infected surfaces.

In other words, masks do a better job of protecting those around you than they do protecting you, so we need as many people as possible to wear them so we’re all protecting each other.

The bill on that defiance may be already coming due. Multiple states are experiencing significant surges in new coronavirus cases — Florida, Texas and Arizona chief among them. And while virtually everyone else across the globe experienced one serious spike in coronavirus cases followed by a long drop-off, the U.S. is now in the midst of a second spike that is surpassing even its first.

Those who defy mask requirements and recommendations against the advice of public health experts may be acting shortsighted: How will they feel if cases across the country continue to spike and states have to lock back down and send people back into community-wide quarantine?

At least then when they throw grocery-fueled temper tantrums, they’ll be doing it inside their own homes.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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