In the last 10 years either Flagler County or its cities, or all of them together, have banned the sale of synthetic marijuana and bath salts. They banned the sale of vaping products to people under 21. They tried to regulate out of existence pill mills and Internet cafes until the state effectively did so. They restricted medical marijuana shops to a few areas.They’ve regulated short-term vacation rentals. All in the name of public safety, all in the name of saving lives. In some cases, as with synthetic marijuana, the dangers were more exaggerated than real. There never was a synthetic marijuana epidemic, and medical marijuana shops pose no greater risk to a community than churches.
The point is that local governments had the power to regulate, and they did so even when the evidence didn’t justify it. Now we have a pandemic on our hands. Unlike that list of supposed hazards above, the coronavirus is now among the leading killers in the United States, with 120,000 dead so far, at least 3,200 dead in Florida (the number is almost certainly an undercount) and one of the more reliable models projecting over 200,000 dead by the end of September, 18,000 in Florida. A few deniers aside no one doubts Covid’s lethality. The Fox-infected propagandists who still go around claiming it’s not much different than the flu are the sort of people who also claim we don’t have a race problem in this country. Deniers can be dangerous to your health, and mine.
The death numbers keep rising, and in Florida for the past two weeks new infections have been spiking to levels far beyond anything we saw at the previous peak of the epidemic in April. Not just spiking, but overwhelming what we’ve had before. We’ve had 33,000 new infections just in the last two weeks. Put another way: more than a third of all of Florida’s infections since the pandemic started have occurred in the last two weeks.
No, it’s not just because the state is testing more. It was testing more in late May, too, and we didn’t see these “astronomical” numbers, as Flagler County’s Jonathan Lord described them Wednesday. And no, it’s not because younger people are getting tested, as Gov. Ron DeSantis said in his astronomically denying press conference Saturday–one of his more acid performances of manipulation, contempt for evidence and sheer ignorance, and there’s been many as he continues to lawyer and politicize a disease without a single scientist or public health official at his side.
The spike is unquestionably due to the state reopening as fast and as broadly as it has, with hardly any mandated guidance to control the spread of the virus. Not then, not now.
In Florida, as in Texas and Arizona, the states with some of the highest spikes, DeSantis and fellow-governors have acted like quacks, taking their cues from Donald Trump, who thinks the virus will just “disappear” one day, maybe like the black tenants he hounded away from his rental properties when he was a slumlord. It hasn’t, it won’t, especially the way these governors are going about it.
The reopening is not wrong in itself. But its reckless manner is. Its allowances in a near-vacuum of mandatory safety requirements leaves it to the whims and ignorance of individuals to enact. It’s compounding earlier mistakes. The claim that hospitals are not overrun misses the point. This isn’t just about protecting hospitals. That’s the wrong measure. It’s about keeping people from getting violently sick and dying, no matter where or at what pace. Who cares if 1,000 people are dying over a span of 10 weeks instead of two, if in the end we still have 1,000 more people dead? Managing this pandemic isn’t about managing hospital ICUs. It’s about preventing deaths, any deaths, any time.
But our approach right now is indifferent to those numbers, especially since there are immediate, cheap, unintrusive and very effective means at hand to do something about it. I’m referring of course to masks. They should be a requirement anywhere in public, anywhere there’s a gathering, anywhere, to borrow the biblical line, two or more people are gathered in mammon’s name. Gainesville and Osceola County already have these mandates in place. Orange County is imposing the order starting tomorrow. What is Palm Coast waiting for? What is Flagler County waiting for? What’s our health department waiting for?
The fear here is not the virus. It’s offending people’s sense of personal freedom. But masks are no more intrusive than seat belts or prohibitions on smoking. They’re the equivalent of a minor act of respect toward your fellow-citizen. It’s courtesy by cloth. You’re not wearing one to protect yourself. Unless you have the more bunker-like masks on that health care workers wear, you’re wearing one to keep others from being exposed to your virus, should you be infected. It has nothing to do with restricting your freedom and everything to do with keeping you from infringing on that of others. As County Administrator Jerry Cameron put it Friday on the radio, “at the end of the day freedom doesn’t mean anything if you’re dead.”
“If you’re so worried about it, stay home.” No. If you’re so indifferent to others’ freedom, you stay home. I like the reaction of a passenger on the American Airlines flight from which Brandon Starka, one of those Kardashian equivalents of Trump mercenaries, was booted for refusing to put on a mask: “Put it on or get off.” You’re not free to yell fire in a theater. You’re not free to spew your droplets in a store, a meeting room, a house of worship. The irony is that most local governments are enforcing those rules in their own buildings.
Unfortunately, we still have a few local elected officials flagrantly ridiculing masks and using their positions as elected officials to do so, undermining the very message of their own emergency and public health officials. But a mandate doesn’t have to be martial law. It can be imposed the same way local authorities handled social distancing: with education rather than policing, but with the authority to do more. Our low infection numbers aren’t a reason not to do it. They’re the reason to do it, because these numbers will not remain this way otherwise, and with schools about to reopen. Enough denialism. More to the point: enough childishness. People are dying, and state government is criminally indifferent. It’s up to our local governments to act. It’s time for mandatory, universal masks in Flagler.