In these days of the coronavirus pandemic, it looks like the latest symbol of “liberty” – Gov. Abbott’s term, not mine – is the COVID mask, or, more precisely, the decision not to wear one. Liberty is a perfectly good, all-American word, which unfortunately is sometimes hijacked to put politics over public safety, as in claiming the “liberty,” as some do, to walk down the street with a fully loaded automatic rifle.
In this case, Abbott was responding to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff of San Antonio, who had asked the governor to issue a new executive order allowing local officials to require people to wear masks in their cities and counties if they felt masks were necessary for public safety. What prompted Wolff’s request was a new upsurge in COVID-19 cases, following Abbott’s decision to prematurely “reopen” Texas.
Abbott turned down Wolff’s request, explaining, “I believe in individual responsibility.”
“With every interview I’ve had on TV, I’ve talked about the individual responsibility to wear a face guard to make sure you don’t transmit COVID-19 or that you don’t get it,” the governor said. “It’s up to every individual in this state to make sure that we slow the spread of COVID-19…(But) it’s wrong to deprive someone of their liberty just because they’re not wearing a mask during the course of this challenge.”
That is a copout.
As Wolff pointed out, once a local requirement in San Antonio that residents wear masks in public was repealed by Abbott several weeks ago, fewer people are wearing masks and COVID-19 cases are increasing. Social distancing also is apparently becoming an afterthought on beaches and at many gatherings.
People who claim they have a right not to wear a mask and risk their own health miss the point. It isn’t just their health at risk. If they become infected and contagious, it also is the health of the grocery store clerk they may encounter or anyone else who crosses their path. The people they encounter, who have been wearing masks and taking other precautions, have a right to try to stay healthy without other people posing threats that could have been avoided.
Abbott was scolding people this week about not wearing masks, zeroing in on people in their 20s, a group that has seen a significant rise in COVID-19 cases. But they aren’t alone. Abbott can scold all he wants, but without an order backing him up, his message is weak.
The governor isn’t so much promoting “liberty” as he is pandering to President Trump and Trump enablers, who want to ignore this pandemic, pretend it is going away, give the American public a false sense of security and somehow revive the president’s troubled reelection chances. Abbott’s eagerness to reopen schools prematurely is part of this effort.
The charade also plays to a long-held American sense that our “liberty” also includes a right not to be terribly inconvenienced, not even by a deadly pandemic.