Last Thursday, July 2, I had one of my most disheartening and disturbing experiences as an Ellis County citizen. I attended the County Commissioners’ special meeting to decide whether Ellis County would honor the governor’s mandate for wearing masks. Given the fact that this significant health-related question was to be decided by a body of men with no medical background but with political points to gain, I should not have been surprised at their unanimous decision to ignore the mandate.
Let’s take a moment to consider one by one their arguments in support of their decision:
"Wear a mask if you believe you’re at risk. It’s a matter of personal preference."
This argument completely ignores the often-repeated fact that wearing a mask protects OTHER PEOPLE more than it protects the wearer. Wearing a mask offers little protection if others are not also wearing masks —hence the need for a mandate.
"People don’t like to be told what to do. In fact, if someone tells me what to do, I’m going to do the opposite."
This argument, made by Commissioner Schlyer, sounds like a teenager’s whining, not a sound reason to ignore a mandate that could help us avoid a spike of cases in Ellis County. Someone might want to go barefoot into a restaurant, but "No shirt, no shoes, no service" is a mandate we’ve accepted for years for health reasons.
"I’m not going to support a mandate in a free country."
Commissioner Roths made this argument, similar to the one above. But even in a free country, we have mandates to protect public safety. Speed limits are just one example.
"It shouldn’t be ‘one size fits all.’"
The thinking here seems to be that because we are in a rural part of the state, we don’t have to take precautions to slow the spread of the pandemic. Only counties with larger populations or larger spikes of cases need those precautions. I’ll return to the speed limit example. There’s much more traffic along I-70 in Johnson County than in Ellis County, yet we still have comparable speed limits for public safety. And speaking of I-70—because travelers come through Ellis County, we should not become complacent and assume the virus won’t find us here.
"Many of my constituents called to say they opposed the mandate."
Commissioners revealed that many constituents were opposed to the mandate, and some were in favor of it. One of those in favor, who called each commissioner, was a medical doctor. For a medical decision, wouldn’t it make more sense to listen to a doctor than to constituents with non-medical backgrounds? The main reason for not doing so seems to be political, with a fear of losing votes being stronger than any desire to protect at-risk citizens. And if you don’t think this decision was political, consider Commissioner Schlyer’s argument:
"If Kobach was governor, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation."
That statement spoke volumes to me. Let me point out that even the staunchly conservative governor of Texas has finally called for a mask mandate. Governor Kelly was simply trying to be proactive, not waiting for unnecessary deaths and hospital ICUs at 95% capacity and climbing, as they’re seeing in Texas after waiting too long to act.
"This mandate is an attack on small business."
I found this argument by Commissioner Roths especially ironic since the opposite is actually true. I and many of my at-risk friends have avoided shopping in Hays because of the lack of masks. On a recent trip to Steamboat Springs, I felt comfortable going in stores and restaurants because of a city-wide mask mandate. Not so in Hays. If businesses want everybody’s business, they need to ensure everyone feels safe walking in the door.
"Some people struggle with wearing a mask — for example, asthma sufferers."
To me, this is actually the most convincing argument, but it, too, can be addressed. Wouldn’t it be possible for such individuals to receive an exemption? They could apply through the County Health Office, perhaps, and receive an exemption card they could carry. Yes, this would mean that a few such individuals would be in public without masks, but surely that’s preferable to having the vast majority of individuals carelessly going out in public without masks.
Since our County Commissioners have failed to support a mandate that would protect citizens’ health, I must appeal instead to the compassion and common sense of business owners and those who go out in public while COVID-19 is still a threat. Please ask your patrons to wear masks — and for everyone reading this, please wear a mask when you’re out in public.
Cheryl Hofstetter Duffy is a professor of English at Fort Hays State University.