I believe that the City of Columbus should reinstate the mask mandate. Currently, in Lowndes County, only 18 percent of residents are fully vaccinated. Herd immunity will not be reached until at least 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. And the more we allow the virus to circulate, the more opportunities we give it to mutate in ways that make existing vaccines less effective. Let’s not forget that even if numbers are improving, people are still dying unnecessarily from this disease. All of us who are not taking proper precautions, including the council members who have voted to lift the mask mandate, need to feel the full weight of this responsibility.
But aside from these positive reasons for keeping the mask mandate, I’d like to consider some arguments for removing the mandate. One argument is that the mandate is unnecessary because case numbers are low. Even though case numbers are low, there is some reason to believe that wearing masks has helped keep case numbers low. And as we’ve seen repeatedly with this disease, decreasing case numbers may very well just be a valley before another peak if we become too lax in our precautions now.
Another argument is poor enforcement of the ordinance. If the city or the police department wants citizens to start calling when people are breaking the law, this should be broadcast, perhaps through something like a “crime tip” hotline for reporting locations of frequent disregard for the mandate. Part of the difficulty of enforcing a new ordinance, I think, is that people are unsure who is supposed to take responsibility. If I’m in Lowe’s and see people unmasked, is it the responsibility of Lowe’s management to report them, or is it mine as a customer? If it’s the latter, I think many people would be happy to help. Second, laws are about more than mere enforcement. They are also about sending a message that the community shares a certain set of values and expectations. Almost 40 percent of reported murders in the U.S. went unsolved in 2019, but we don’t give up on this law because it is important for members of our community to know that we find taking another person’s life unacceptable. Who knows how many people speed without getting caught, but we keep speed limits to communicate to drivers what a safe speed is on a given stretch of road. To lift the mask mandate prematurely is to send the false message that we are out of the woods, a message that is too readily being spread by the Governor’s office and others.
Finally, others argue that if you want to wear a mask, you still have the choice to. But there are two problems with this argument. First, businesses may very well want to require masks but feel pressure from customers not to. Having a law on the books gives them an out, a way to say, “It’s out of my hands, it’s a city ordinance.” Second, wearing masks is more effective at preventing the spread of the virus to others than protecting the wearer. If I’m walking through the grocery store wearing a mask around unmasked people, I am protecting them, but I’m much less protected from them. This is a case where public health is incompatible with individuals doing whatever they want; we must have a collective sense of responsibility for the health of the community, and our elected officials must have the courage to stand up for it.
Josh Dohmen, Columbus