For most Americans the big news in COVID-19-related mask policy of late was how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was weighing whether to recommend the use of more highly protective masks — the N95 or KN95 variety that has become standard issue in hospitals — to guard against the more easily transmissible omicron variant. In Maryland, it was the announcement Thursday that 20 million of those same masks will soon be provided free of charge to state residents. As cases rise and hospitals operate in crisis mode, this is the logical next step: Ill-fitting, less effective cloth and cheaper versions of disposable masks simply don’t offer the same level of protection; and masking, perhaps second in importance only to vaccination and testing in the fight against COVID, ought to be a priority for everyone and not just health care workers.
Yet in Anne Arundel County, the message on masks has gone in a decidedly different direction. When County Executive Steuart Pittman sought to extend his seven-day executive order mandating the use of masks in indoor public places that was due to expire on Friday, Jan. 7, it was shot down by all three Republicans on the Anne Arundel County Council. Yet within hours of that unfortunate decision, the county’s health officer rode to the rescue. Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman signed his own emergency order keeping the mandate in place through the end of January.
Score one for science and common sense — except the bypassed council members did not quite see it that way. Instead, they were angry. That included Amanda Fiedler who, in a statement, announced that the health officer had “shaken the faith” of county residents and fellow member Jessica Haire who insists that county residents ought to make their own medical decisions. Herbert McMillan, a Republican candidate for county executive went further, denouncing the decision as a “failure to respect and accept the democratic process” and in a Jan. 10 column on the local website Eye On Annapolis, compared it to dictators who seize power under the mantle that the “ends justify the means.” Never mind that Dr. Kalyanaraman had the authority to take this action, that he was pursuing the same policy most neighboring counties have adopted, or that it’s just three weeks. We might add that, at least to our knowledge, the county’s public health officer has expressed no interest in appointing himself supreme leader.
This kind of over-the-top response to mask requirements would seem extraordinary if it had not become so much the part and parcel of the GOP and repeated endlessly on a loop on conservative media. It isn’t that Republicans are against masks, they will say, but against mandates. One can only imagine how, if transplanted to 1940s London, they would have reacted to British blackout rules during the Blitz. “It’s not that I’m for giving German bombers a target but I think it ought to be left to each homeowner whether to use those blackout curtains or not and not the government.” Sadly, an airborne virus can land as indiscriminately as munitions if people don’t take precautions.
In a perfect world, everyone would do the right thing and follow CDC guidelines, particularly as COVID infections worldwide go “off the charts,” as the World Health Organization reported last Wednesday with 15 million new cases in seven days (and nearly one-third of them in the U.S.). But then in such an existence, people would not speed through school zones, or run stop lights or send their kids to school without the required childhood vaccinations. Government makes rules to cover those situations. Why? Because irresponsible behavior harms more than just the irresponsible individual, it impacts the broader community. Some lines must be drawn in a civil society.
We don’t know too many individuals who enjoy wearing masks although on a cold winter day, they do tend to keep the face warm. But boy, is this the wrong civil liberties hill to die on. Critics of mandates do get one thing right. They are difficult to enforce. But then they are made all the more difficult to enforce when elected officials act irresponsibly and foolishly politicize their use. It may get them approval from Donald Trump’s true believers but it will also likely increase resistance to mask wearing, free or not, with all the adverse health consequences that come with that. Should council members double down and support a lawsuit against the county health officer, so much the worse for Anne Arundel residents.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.