Guns, Cigarettes, and Masks

I’ve said before that there’s a difference in the level of resistance to sensible pandemic restrictions in the UK and the US. It’s more difficult to justify that opinion after seeing some of the British crowds queueing up at Primark and other stores on their first day of reopening. Here’s the queue for the Nike store in Oxford Street:

Obviously, the required social distancing is out the window. You have to wonder who needs to be in the Nike store this badly, but part of the problem was that Nike had promotions, including trainers that could be bought only in the store. One enterprising, and presumably jobless, customer said that he was going to buy the £200 trainers and sell them on eBay for £1000. All of this is in stark contrast to the generally orderly queues we’ve been seeing outside Sainsburys and other essential businesses for the last three months. So yes, there are plenty of Brits who have, for one reason or another, rejected all the government’s (and scientists’) advice on social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

But overall, despite the pictures, the number of people shopping in the UK on Monday was 45% lower than last year’s figures for the same week. Given that Monday was the first day the stores were open, as opposed to last year, when it was just another day, that tells me that even though all the news cameras were out there getting video of the people who were dying to shop, the average Brit was a little more reticent. And overall, I’d say that while you may see impatience, you don’t see the same level of belief that 1) the pandemic is all made up/designed to thwart people, and 2) asking people to take even the most basic precautions is somehow (and I don’t know how) an infringement of their rights as Americans.

A friend sent me some responses to the Governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, when he suggested, cheekily, that “If you think you look silly in a mask, imagine how you will look in a hospital gown.” The vitriolic comments back were worse than anything I’ve seen here, although I may be wrong, and I just might not be aware of it here. One refrain I have seen repeated many times is, “If you want to wear a mask, go ahead. Why do you care what I do?” Of course, that’s not how it works. Your wearing a mask protects me more than it does you; my wearing a mask protects you. And given that if you refuse to wear a mask, I am suspect of what other measures you’ve taken, I’d say that even without my mask, I am less risky to be around than you are.

I have seen people equate mask wearing with wearing a seatbelt, but it’s not quite the same, is it? Wearing a mask is necessarily a community effort. If I don’t wear a seatbelt, the danger that I will be seriously injured in a crash goes up, but unless my body flies out of the car and hits you, I haven’t really affected how seriously you may be injured. I have said for a long time that if adults don’t want to wear seatbelts when they drive, they shouldn’t be forced by the government to do so. But insurance companies should be allowed, as part of the insurance contract, to require their customers to either wear seatbelts or not be covered in a crash. Masks are different. And that’s when it hit me that it’s just a different version of the ongoing argument about guns and the slightly more dated argument about cigarettes.

Four years ago, when Obama was still the president and many right-wing people were panicking that their guns would be confiscated, I had a conversation with one of those people. He had never had an interest in owning a gun until he thought someone might tell him he couldn’t, and now he owned a couple and was filled with the Fox News talking points—you know, “There’s no such thing as a semi-automatic weapon. You people don’t know what you’re talking about!” I was trying to make the point (don’t ask me why) that people who own guns are more likely to be injured or killed by them, and that people who think their guns make them “safer” are not. I said, in a joking way, “Well, I’m a fairly reasonable person, and there’s no reason I wouldn’t be given a gun license, but there’ve been times when if I had a gun, someone would be dead!” His immediate response was almost identical to the anti-mask response: “Well, then, you shouldn’t get a gun!” But, first of all, I am actually a slow-burn person, and I doubt, even if I had a gun in my hands, that I would use it on someone. He, on the other hand, is a hot-head, and my real fear was that his wife would provoke him when he had his gun. And second, more generally, of course we need an authority to mandate reasonable gun control policy, because the very people who are most likely to cause harm, intentionally or accidentally, are the ones who don’t want any controls at all. But what is most interesting about this is that this man never had any interest in guns—and has been to the gun range only a couple of times since he bought them. He bought them because he is the person who is targeted by columnists and talk-radio people who promote arguments that I swear they don’t even believe themselves. It’s part of the whole conspiracy-theory world. He thinks there’s a conspiracy to take away his “rights,” even if he has no idea what those rights actually are, and he has been told that his right to own a military-grade weapons was under threat.

Now, he’s being told one of a handful of conspiracies about the pandemic and we don’t even have to go to the shadowy talk-radio world to get support for them. The entire conspiracy (of the day) may be on Alex Jones or Rush Limbaugh, but the president signals to his supporters that he agrees, by, for example, refusing to wear a mask in a place where they are required. It’s interesting that in the beginning, I mostly saw snide comments about the stupidity of thinking masks could help against the virus. You know, things about the size of the virus (without acknowledging that it’s conveyed on droplets). Now that there’s more evidence out there that masks help, I’ve seen a shift in the arguments. You’ve probably seen them, too: Masks will make the wearer sick. Never mind that surgeons have been wearing masks during surgery since the late 19th century and never had a problem with being able to breathe. No one points out that the shift in talking points from “they can’t stop anything from passing through them” to “they’re so effective, you will breathe in too much carbon dioxide” seem to be diametrically opposed. There seems to be a group of people out there who want things to be normal, as we all do, but are blaming someone (but not the president, oddly) for their not being normal. They are engaging in a kind of magical thinking: “If I refuse to take any of these measures and I just go about my business as normal, things will be normal.” Of course, in fact, it’s quite the reverse. If I take these minimally inconvenient steps, the country will be able to go back to normal far more quickly than if I refuse.

If everyone were reasonable and understood how their actions affect other people and them, we wouldn’t need regulations. Cigarettes are a really good parallel here. If you are a non-smoker in your forties or older, you remember when people could smoke in restaurants and bars and on planes. They started out by breaking these places up into smoking and non-smoking sections. Remember how that didn’t work? You’re in a small restaurant and you’re put at the edge of the non-smoking section. The fact that it’s called non-smoking doesn’t alter the fact that your meal is ruined. People were sure that bars would close if a non-smoking rule were enforced, but now, every accepts it. In the UK, they still allow smoking outside, which means that when the weather gets nice, many pub gardens become uncomfortable places for a non-smoker to be. And on a Friday night, you have to walk through clouds of smoke to get to the door. But still, even though I’d like it to be banned completely, I can see the reasonableness in allowing pubs to make their own rules about outdoor space. There are a few, now, that are banning smoking outside as well. But you’re less likely to get an unhealthy dose of second-hand smoke in your lungs outside, so it seems like a decent compromise to allow smoking in the beer garden.

And that brings us back to masks. I tend to wear mine in the neighborhood around my apartment because it gets very crowded and the pavement is narrow. But I do know that being outside means there’s less risk of the virus being transmitted. So it makes sense not to require masks everywhere. But if you’re in that queue in the first photograph, you should be required to 1) keep the same social distance people are required to keep going into Sainsburys, and 2) wear a mask, not just in the store, but in the queue. Most people are, and a couple of people have masks around their necks, which tells me Nike was requiring them to put them on before going into the store, but given their proximity to the person in front of them, and the length of time they are in the queue, they should be wearing the masks while they wait, too. Let’s go back to the protests. On June 16, the New York Post ran with this front page and  accompanying article:

Is the Post correct? Not exactly. Governor Cuomo clearly discussed the risks in his COVID press conference, so calling him out individually, as the Post does, is completely inaccurate:

And he discussed it head-on, which is why even some of my Republican friends are impressed with him. But there were a lot of Democrats and the media that did sidestep questions of risk. When I wrote a blog post on it, I concentrated on the UK and the overall risk to the country, so I was doing my own bit of sidestepping. Clearly, there was a risk that someone attending the Westminster or Manchester protests, where there were so many people that it was impossible to maintain a 2-metre distance, could spread the disease. And if people went home to more vulnerable family members, there would be the risk that they would transmit the virus to them. While the Post published the worst possible picture, and many other protests were less congested, they are right—the more people that attended one of those protests, the greater the risk that the disease would spread, especially in the US, where protests were so crowded and there were so many of them. Another risk factor that Cuomo talked about in his press conference makes it more likely in the US than in the UK: The already cavalier attitude of many people toward taking protective measures. One of the things I mentioned in my post was that since the UK was still largely closed for business, many of those people had less likelihood of bringing the virus into the protest. That’s not as true in the US, where, depending on the state or city, people might already be out and about. We’ll find out shortly whether the big protests had any effect on the numbers overall, and you have to believe that at least in big cities, they probably did. But—and this is the part of the argument the Post omits completely—the reason people protested was because they thought it was important enough to put themselves at risk. I am scared of heights and would normally not go anywhere near the edge of a cliff. But if I saw a child walking toward it, I would, and I probably wouldn’t even think about my usual fear. That’s how I see many of the people protesting. They saw this as the moment to effect actual change, and they risked it. Mayor Cuomo may not agree with them, but at least they were committed to something they thought was important—and, in most cases, to people other than themselves.

I have less sympathy for people who just want to do whatever they feel like doing, crowd or no crowd. I have a Facebook friend who is the perfect example of everything I’ve been talking about. About a week ago, he posted the following status:

When Governor Wolfe, (PA.), lifts his Emergency Order, does that mean Casinos can then re-open?

This was not his first tweet about opening the casinos. He is also against masks and every other measure designed to limit the spread of the disease. He is quite exercised at the idea that when the casino he frequents reopens, it might have to limit people at the blackjack tables to 4, so that there can be a space in between them, because he likes a crowded table. Must be some millennial, I can hear you saying if you are my age (although I don’t think that many millennials are visiting Parx Casino). Nope. I know him because we were in grade school together. He also has been retired for underlying health issues since his early 50s and lives in a senior citizens’ community. Well, you might say, it’s his funeral. Maybe, but since he doesn’t have very much to do, he makes it a point to go around to his neighbors and check their smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and talk them into replacing them if he thinks they need it. He does the work himself. I’d assume the people who need him to change their detectors are some of the older people in his community. So we have someone who wants to go to a casino, an indoor activity if ever there was one, and will then visit his 85-year-old neighbor and spend time in her house. This is how to spread a virus. And here is the problem. This man considers himself to be a charitable, good person. He brings clothing to the homeless and he says he changes the smoke detectors out of concern for his neighbors. But he is mad at the Chinese and liberals for spoiling his fun—and his president and others are feeding into that anger. As long as too many conservatives choose to gain political points at the expense of science and reasonable caution, and as long as too many liberals choose to gain political points instead of acknowledging that things like the protests are risky, I don’t have any hope, short of the disease just disappearing, that the US will avoid a second wave.

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