Sun, May

Feeling Like a Maskless Sitting Duck in Florida


COVID WATCH - I’m feeling like a sitting duck these days, as are the other members of my family.

For my son at Flagler Palm Coast High School, for my wife with the strings program she runs, they’re convinced it’s a matter of time before they get infected with Covid despite their vaccines, despite their masks, which can’t do much against those around them who think masks are the biggest threat to their freedom since Tojo bombed Pearl Harbor. 

So we go about our business waiting to see what kind of casualties we’ll be in this biological civil war that’s claiming more lives much faster than did the more conventional one a century and a half ago. I don’t think it’s ironic that the two wars at this point follow the same  North-South boundaries. It’s more like a replay by other means. It’s the divide between the maskers and anti-maskers, the vaccine states and the anti-vaxxer confederacy, the scientific north and the social media South, where misinformation has the weight of gospel, and where even elected officials abuse their position to corrupt truth and amplify fabrications

We have nearly 100 people hospitalized with Covid at AdventHealth Palm Coast. At least 40 Flagler County residents have died of the disease just in the last four weeks. We’ve had more infections since July in Flagler than we had all of last year combined. When the latest numbers are posted today and tomorrow, Flagler County schools in less than three weeks will have exceeded the number of student infections it had in 10 months of school last year, when we didn’t even have the vaccine. 

For all that, what took up 90 minutes of the school board’s time before the chamber had to be cleared last week were fanatical arguments against masking and a bogus story about an Indian Trails Middle School student. It was a hothouse of Covid deniers exactly four miles down the road from the morgue at the hospital, where bodies are piled up as if the Black Death were resurrected. Then came a school board vote turning down a temporary mask rule. 

The county is in the worst public health crisis it has known in its history. Our physicians and health care workers are understaffed, overrun and exhausted. They are pleading for help beyond the public bromides about health care heroes, words and drive-bys that mean nothing if not backed up by actions that help cut down the body count. Our neighbors and friends and family members in the prime of their lives are dying at a rate of more than 10 a week. But we’re still debating masks and sniffing at vaccines (Flagler only last week crossed past the 50 percent vaccination threshold). The settled science of masks and vaccines, I should say. It’s as if the population of London would argue with Churchill against taking shelter in the underground during Nazi air raids because it interfered with tea time. It’s that incomprehensible. 

Mask-wearing is not a black and white panacea. No one would ever claim it is. Like vaccines, it’s not a guarantee against harm. But neither are seat belts. Neither are car seats for children. Neither are motorcycle helmets (at least for minors in Florida). Neither are no-smoking rules. But we not only take all those precautions. We concede that they are and should be mandatory. We don’t argue about them. We know they greatly diminish risk because we have the data. Somehow, that data is acceptable but the data on masks is not to be trusted, while the blares of social media memes and demagogues are. 

But smoking rules aside, even these analogies fall short, because they focus on benefits to the individual rather than on the communal benefit of slowing and stopping the spread of a disease. Fighting Covid is more like the Observer’s Brian McMillan’s analogy the other week about every property along the ocean doing its part to allow the government to build protective dunes against rising seas. Even if one or two property owners were to refuse, the project fails (Flagler’s very nearly did so), and everyone behind the dunes is at risk of flooding. It’s an existential choice that has less to do with freedom and more to do with survival. It’s not about property rights, which aren’t even infringed. It’s about communal responsibility. So it is with Covid. 

I could understand the argument about personal choice, and ultimately it’s never been anything other than personal choice, since every mandate has its opt-outs. But there’s no connection between that choice and freedom as properly understood–as defined by John Stuart Mill, for example: my freedom ends where your harm begins. As opt-outs go, even hurricane-evacuation orders don’t mean residents who don’t want to go will be dragged out of their homes. They won’t. But paramedics will not risk their lives during a hurricane to rescue someone who refused to evacuate. Freedom has its limits, as does government’s responsibility to ensure those freedoms. Intransigeance, recklessness and harm to others shape those limits. 

The mayor of Anchorage the other day tried to speak of masks as freedom of choice by comparing it to wearing a tie or not wearing a tie, as if an aesthetic accessory had anything to do with protecting somebody else’s health. Or else we hear about masks causing harm, as if surgeons who spend their days operating on patients were somehow compromised by wearing the mask that protects patients from infection. This isn’t politicizing the pandemic. It’s inventing a mythology of logic, an absolution of lies divorced from reality. It’s chauvinism masked as freedom, with flags and slogans as accessories. 

The extreme of that prejudice is embodied in Gov. DeSantis and his bellicose assault on precautions–those orders banning mask mandates, banning vaccine checks, undermining schools that take too many precautions, threatening to cut off their funding. The assault from a governor more concerned about errant migrants than 21 million Floridians speaks more of vengeful defiance than looking out for public safety. It isn’t about choice, because there is no choice when the difference is life and death. It’s about giving one side the right to infect while placing the burden of protection on the other side. It’s as if DeSantis banned air bags or seat belts as standard requirements and said: if you want them, you pay for them, and if you drive on state and county roads, they’re restricted anyway. That’s what he’s done with masks. It’s that simple. It’s that depraved. 

My sense is that the administration in Flagler schools would prefer masking rules, if only because the sheer number of students getting Covid and those having to quarantine because of exposure is making it difficult to maintain the pretense of a normal school year. At this rate the district is gambling it’ll be spared a child fatality, as Leon County again had this week. Ten school districts have imposed mandates so far. It would have been more reassuring to have a board willing to risk its hide if it meant living up to its claim, spoken in one way or another by every board member: “We’re here for the children.” Based on last week’s vote, I’m not so sure. 

On Friday a Leon County judge may well strike down DeSantis’s ban on school mandates, though if he does–a big if–even that seems temporary. The case will make its way to the state  Supreme Court, itself a hothouse of DeSantis appointees, each more of a sophist than Gorgias. That lift for DeSantis is as solid as the one in his cowboy boots. He knows no masking mandate will survive in this state. So do we all. Not in this graveyard of science and human ethics. Of sitting ducks. 

Pierre Tristam is a journalist, writer, editor and lecturer. He is currently the editor and publisher of FlaglerLive.com, a non-profit news site in Florida. A native of Beirut, Lebanon, who became an American citizen in 1986, Pierre is one of the United States' only Arab Americans with a regular current affairs column in a mainstream, metropolitan newspaper.