Eastern Idaho Public Health’s board is to be commended for taking a necessary action last week: Requiring universal mask-wearing in Bonneville County, which now has one of the highest infection rates in eastern Idaho. Bonneville’s recent spike has been astronomical.
Those opposed to universal masking, while small in number, have been extremely vocal, confrontational and even violent — public health officials in southwestern Idaho have had to cancel multiple meetings due to security threats after followers of Ammon Bundy used physical force to enter the building where their meeting was held without conforming to masking rules. Doing the right thing in the face of such opposition shows political courage and a commitment to problem-solving.
Praise, in particular, is due to board member and Bonneville County Commissioner Bryon Reed, whose constituents are now protected by the order.
Members of the public should follow these orders not only to comply with the law but also for the simple reason that it protects their neighbors.
Those screaming “tyranny” in the wings demonstrate only that they don’t understand the meaning of the word.
When you don’t wear a mask, it’s true you risk your own safety to a degree. And, arguably, the government does not have much right to protect you from the consequences of your own actions — but it is an essential task of government to limit and punish the harm you do to others.
Drunk driving isn’t illegal because you risk your own life. It’s illegal because you risk others’ lives. Shopping or working around others without a mask is precisely analogous. Those who demand the right to occupy closed spaces with other people unmasked during the pandemic are demanding the right to drive drunk. (Let us hope that there are no repeats here of the embarrassing displays other places in the country, where overgrown adolescents have berated frontline workers in grocery stores for enforcing their company’s decision to require masks on their own property.)
Until there is a vaccine, COVID-19 will be waiting to explode. It’s now quite clear that prevention measures became insufficient with the shift to Stage 4 of reopening.
While the spread has not been accelerating as quickly as in late March, when the number of infections was doubling every two to three days, it has returned to an exponential path. Starting shortly after the shift to Stage 4, when bars and restaurants reopened, statewide infections started doubling roughly every two weeks. Even with infections doubling at that reduced rate, if nothing changes, half the population would be infected within a few months.
This means that without additional interventions, Stage 4 — perhaps even Stage 3 — will prove unsustainable. Masking will likely have to become a permanent feature of life in the pandemic, unless we want to close more businesses.
If Idaho is to avoid sliding backward down the reopening track — again shutting down businesses that this time may never reopen — it’s clear additional interventions are necessary to slow the rate of spread. There is a wealth of evidence, growing stronger by the day, that universal mask-wearing could be the key intervention that will suppress the rate of spread sufficiently to keep the economy going.
As we have said before, universal masking is not a restriction on freedom and ordinary life. It is one of the conditions for the possibility of freedom and ordinary life during the pandemic. Eastern Idaho Public Health gave us another shot at it last week. If we all work together to protect one another, our lives can be much more normal and productive until a vaccine finally puts the pandemic behind us.