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Opinion: Are Americans ready to take a step backward in the fight against COVID-19?

Calls to reimpose mask mandates have politicians redrawing old battle lines rather than working to get more people vaccinated.

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A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccination.

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy on Feb. 11. Utah exceeded 1,000 new daily cases of the virus this week for the first time since February. Rather than renewing efforts to wear masks or get shots, many politicians are content to redraw old familiar battle lines.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

A friend once noted that getting the economy restarted would be harder than shutting it down had been at the beginning of the pandemic. True, as some news stories have noted, a few people feel scared to venture out of their homes and back into the normal flow of people on the streets. And yes, some things have changed for good.

But those difficulties don’t compare with something much harder: Getting people who are tired of the mere mention of COVID-19 to take a step backward and wear masks again. Or to do the one thing that would make the most difference — get a shot.

No one’s talking about shutting things down, mind you. Just those two things.

Utah passed a grim milestone Thursday that observers have known was coming for a while. The number of new cases topped 1,000 in one day for the first time since February. To be exact, the 1,113 new cases were the most since the 1,151 reported on Feb. 18. The difference is that back in February, the state was on the way down.

But the resurgent delta variant is reinforcing familiar, if also tedious, political battle lines that have marked this pandemic from the beginning. These are battle lines only a generation of softies — separated by decades from the last time Americans were required to make any sort of sacrifice — could mistake as threats to freedom.

One side of that line was reinforced Wednesday afternoon in Salt Lake City by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who addressed assembled conservative lawmakers at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s conference. 

“Floridians are free to choose, and all Americans should be free to choose, how they govern their affairs, how they take care of themselves and our families,” he said. “And they should not be consigned to live, regardless of which state in the union, … in a ‘Fauci-an’ dystopia in which we’re governed by the whims of bureaucratic authorities who care little for our freedom, little for our aspirations and little for our happiness.”

That dig at Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to both presidents Trump and Biden, got the crowd reaction DeSantis no doubt had hoped for. Politicians know their audiences. 

And yet the record of his native Florida during the pandemic has been, despite what he implied, nothing to brag about. Florida ranks 25th among states in terms of COVID-19 deaths per 1 million population, according to worldometers.info. It’s 10th in terms of cases per capita, and fourth in terms of total deaths, with 38,840.

But the other side of that line has been equally ineffective and weak. President Joe Biden on Thursday asked states to allocate stimulus money to give $100 checks to every newly vaccinated American.

Besides people like me wondering where our C-notes are for being quick to obtain a shot months ago, the strategy simply won’t work.  

In a Deseret News/KSL poll conducted by Scott Rasmussen in June, unvaccinated Utahs were asked to choose from a list of possible incentives that would get them to submit to a needle. The most popular answer, at 65%, was, “Nothing could make me more likely to get vaccinated.” The second most popular answer, at 16%, was “No answer.” 

Only 3% said they would do it in exchange for tickets to a sporting event, and that was when the Jazz still were in the playoffs.

Clearly, neither side is doing much to stem this resurgent tide of sickness and death.

In an earlier age, conservatives used to define freedom loosely as something that ended where the next person’s nose began. With that in mind, maybe the best question no one is asking is, should someone have the right to infect another person’s nose through negligence? 

Or, perhaps, should someone have the right to unwittingly use his or her body as a host for a virus that might, at any time, mutate into something no current vaccine could guard against, then spread that to others through negligence? 

“This pandemic of the unvaccinated is tragic because it is preventable,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday

This is true, but getting even the vaccinated — who experts now say may be carriers — to take that step backward may be this generation’s biggest test. 

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News columnist