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Masks, gas lines and the limits of personal responsibility | COMMENTARY

The Exxon gasoline station at Erdman Avenue and Edison Highway ran out of fuel this past week, affected by panic buying after the cyberattack of the Colonial Pipeline. May 11, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun).
The Exxon gasoline station at Erdman Avenue and Edison Highway ran out of fuel this past week, affected by panic buying after the cyberattack of the Colonial Pipeline. May 11, 2021. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun). (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

Gov. Larry Hogan and the Centers for Disease Control have decided that masks can come off indoors (in most places) as well as outdoors. The governor on Wednesday initially set a state threshold for mask removal at 70% of Maryland adults receiving at least one dose of vaccine. But after the CDC followed with guidance Thursday saying fully vaccinated people, meaning those two weeks past their final shot, can stop wearing masks inside and outside in crowded spaces, Mr. Hogan upped the ante: At 5 p.m. Friday, he announced mask requirements were a thing of the past as of Preakness day, whether you were vaccinated or not, unless you’re in a health care, day care or education setting; or on public transportation.

Is the timing right? There are quite a few experts, including a former state health secretary, who think it’s premature; we tend to side with them — even during the brief period when the now reasonable seeming 70% threshold was in place. The country has certainly made strides in both reducing positivity rates and getting vaccine into arms, Maryland in particular. But there are also areas that are seriously lagging. And that’s not even considering that kids younger than 12 are not yet approved to receive any coronavirus vaccine, while 12-to-15-year-olds just got approval to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

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We realize lifting indoor mask mandates doesn’t mean people have to take off their masks. Local governments can keep restrictions in place, along with individual businesses. And people can choose to act responsibly indoors and stay masked up until more groups are vaccinated. To all that we can only say: Seen any lines at your local filling station lately?

If Americans needed any reminder of how individuals left to their own devices are not always to be relied upon, they need only look to the gas pumps. This past week has been a lesson in the me-first nature of human beings left to their own devices. The recent ransomware attack that temporarily shut down the Colonial Pipeline, the biggest single source of fuel (including gasoline) to the East Coast, was made dramatically worse by the gas hoarding that’s followed. Long lines, higher prices and spot shortages struck as people freaked out and filled every vehicle and container they could get their hands on. Gas stations emptied like the toilet paper shelves at grocery stores a year ago.

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Look, we believe in individual liberty and freedom as much as anyone else. It’s a bedrock principle of this nation. But we also believe in stop signs, speed limits and other civil laws that help keep people from inadvertently doing serious damage to each other. The COVID-19 pandemic has required this kind of government involvement. Unfortunately, these necessary public health measures have been wrongly treated as ammunition in the usual partisan sniping. And so, Maryland, like the country, is now seeing its lowest vaccination rates in regions that most strongly supported Donald Trump for president. Cecil and Garett counties have vaccination rates below 30%, for example, and they voted for President Trump in 2020 by overwhelming margins (in Garrett, it approached 4-to-1).

There are far worse things people must deal with in life than wearing a strip of cloth or paper across their nose and mouth for a few more months. Contracting a virus that has killed more than 583,000 Americans, for example. Things are clearly getting better on that front, but a bit of patience is still required. Better to put an emphasis on encouraging more people to get the vaccine than to drop our defenses before we’ve achieved herd immunity, which is widely believed to 70-to-80% (and that’s not just adults or one-half of a two-shot vaccine course).

No doubt, most people make the correct decisions when it comes to public health without need of executive orders or health department mandates. Alas, that’s just not good enough. Finding out your local gas station is closed is an inconvenience. Turning public spaces into potential superspreader sites is far, far worse. Let’s err on the side of caution.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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