My LA daughter’s taco stand has closed indefinitely due to the constant conflict with patrons who won’t wear masks. In a letter to customers, the owners cited their exhaustion and frustration over staff members being harassed, verbally abused, even assaulted with objects or liquids. A viral video showing a North Hollywood Trader Joe’s customer tossing down a shopping basket and berating staff and customers after being told to either cover up or leave ended with the woman shouting at masked onlookers, calling them Democratic (%$#@$!!#s.
It’s hard not to feel jaded watching retirees at The Villages parading in their Trump-regalia tricked-out golf carts, one “gentleman” shouting “White power” while a woman wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt hurls the “F bomb” at him. This isn’t a both sides issue; there were dozens of pro-Trumpers and just a few protesters. And no one was wearing a mask.
Instead of worrying about the alleged incivility of overwhelmingly peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters, excoriating athletes taking a knee during the anthem, or claiming that all Biden supporters are crazy left wing anarchists, we need to address the rending of the social fabric caused by the failure of the modern GOP to actually have answers to the crises facing the United States.
They seem only to be capable of resorting to branding every issue a battle in the ongoing culture war, a war that they themselves have created and added fuel to at every turn. Brazenly refusing to wear masks while in Congressional hearing rooms, going along with calling the coronavirus the Wuhan flu or the Chinese virus or worst of all, the Kung flu, our so-called leaders are stigmatizing the one thing that has been shown to be most protective of all of us in this pandemic.
The most depressing part of all of this is the understanding that the reason wearing a mask and practicing social distancing has become politicized is the absolute failure of the GOP and the Trump administration to come up with actual plans for combatting the spread of the virus. Name calling and cries of “it’s my right to do what I want” have become their default position.
No wonder the rest of the world has or will soon decide that having Americans visit their countries is too much of a risk. If Americans can’t wear a mask into the grocery store or to the taco stand to pick up their orders than who’s to say they can follow any regulations imposed by the countries they visit? We are all being branded as lawbreakers, science deniers, super spreaders.
I’ve tried to think of historical parallels to this moment, because that’s the way I make sense of the world. Many have compared this time to the early twentieth century flu pandemic. A less well known pandemic struck the U.S. from 1832 to 1866. Arriving from India, cholera broke out in the port city of New York and made its way across the country.
Before that small pox traveled the international trade routes, wiping out ninety percent of the native population of the Americas and arriving in Boston on slave ships. Ironically, it was a slave owned by Cotton Mather, the minister involved in the Salem witch trial debacle, who introduced the idea of inoculating people with the pus from a small pox victim’s pustule, saving the city from being totally wiped out.
Each of these previous pandemics disrupted society. Victims were shunned. Rich urban dwellers retreated to their country houses. Economic insecurity fueled ethnic and religious tensions. Eventually, health and prosperity returned. But social hierarchies were disrupted, and new elites and political alliances arose.
And that is exactly what today’s GOP fears. Wearing a mask has come to be seen as a sign of belief in equality of opportunity, in this case equality of opportunity to contract and spread a lethal virus. When wearing a mask is seen as “weakness” as we’ve been told Trump believes, what is really being said is “wearing a mask means that white superiority, belief in a Christian God, heterosexual marriage and rugged individualism will not protect me from something that those other people get, too.”
Just yesterday as I was walking my dog, an unmasked middle-aged white man sauntered uncomfortably close to me and shouted, “Trump World, Trump” then spat on the sidewalk beside me. This kind of experience is a rarity in my Upper West Side of Manhattan liberal enclave. Even toddlers wear masks here.
If masks symbolize anything in New York City, its our collective resolve not to go through what we went through in March, April and May. Only five people died of COVID-19 in New York State yesterday. We’ve flattened the curve and we intend to keep it that way.
People have gotten creative, matching face coverings to outfits or decorating them in silly, artistic or sometimes political ways. And yes, there are pictures of twenty-somethings congregating in the street outside of bars without face coverings. At least they usually have them dangling from their necks! Here, to be masked is to say, “I want to be part of the solution not part of the problem.”
I only wish the GOP would say the same.