I saw him often the past few months, in stores that were open during the first days of the lockdown and then in other places after the restrictions were lifted. The man without a mask was something of a mystery, always the anonymous stranger, and yet I felt I knew him in a statistical sort of way.


He seemed to have little respect for my personal space, which expanded to a full six feet after the pandemic hit. It was not easy to keep my social distance in a crowded grocery store. I soon became adept in the art of defensive walking; you always had to watch for the other guy.


He had an air of nonchalance, as if he was unconcerned about the pandemic. Maybe I was overreacting, but thousands of people had died from he virus and I had my family and friends to think about.


According to a recent Gallup Poll, the unmasked man is statistically more likely to be a man than a woman. He lives in the northeast and has an income of less than $35,000. He is less than 34 years old, a non-college graduate, and a member of the republican party.


The good news is that a majority of U. S. adults said they always or often wore a mask, but there was a big partisan difference among those who didn’t cover their face. 27 percent of republicans said they never wore a mask as opposed to I percent of democrats.


It’s astonishing to think that some people could be making personal health decisions based on politics.


We are often not so good at judging the cost and benefit of an action. Some bias or other tends to creep into the calculation, and many of us have a strong bias against masks even though science says that wearing them saves lives.


According to a model by the University of Washington, widespread use of masks could save up to 28,000 lives by October1.


Some people judiciously choose not to wear a mask because they have asthma, COPD or other health problems that make breathing difficult. Other people of a less judicious sort refuse to wear a mask because they either downplay or ignore the risk.


Young adults are notoriously adept at downplaying risks, and they are facilitating the transmission with their brazen bare-faced bar hopping and irresponsible pool parties. But they are not alone; many older adults are included in that group too.


One of the most outrageously selfish arguments is that mask mandates are an assault on our freedom. What these people are really saying is they want the freedom to do as they please no matter how much harm it may do to others.


It bears repeating that covid-19 is a deadly and highly contagious virus, and by getting infected you can transmit the virus to your friends and family.


When I hear this "freedom" argument, I think of all those who have lost their lives to the coronavirus. I think of the front-line workers who are risking their lives to save others. I think of the economic impact of the pandemic and all the pain and suffering it has caused.


How sad to think one man’s right to life, liberty and happiness can be threatened by another man’s refusal to wear a simple mask.


Sometimes I was that guy, the one who went without a mask thinking he would be in a safe situation. But we are all subjects in a colossal real-time experiment, and it’s hard to know where the virus will show up next.


We may think we are safe living in a place where there are relatively few cases, but the CDC says there are probably 10 times more cases in the country than the official numbers. Stealth is the virus’s best weapon and we still don’t have near enough testing to get a handle on it.


Face coverings are more common now that the city of Hays has issued a mask mandate. Seeing a large number of people wearing masks is an encouraging sign, though no doubt some are doing it reluctantly.


But the unmasked man has not ridden into the sunset. He still roams the open plain, making frequent appearances in smaller communities where the risk is thought to be low. You see him everywhere, in church, at funerals, in bars and restaurants, at sporting events and private parties.


It’s just the kind of thing the virus is eager to take advantage of.


Richard Weber, a fourth-generation Kansan, is a retired public school teacher who writes from his country home near Ellis. Reach him at rweber@gbta.net.