clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Opinion: Don’t want masks in school? COVID-19 isn’t listening and doesn’t care

People who see mask mandates as illegal are wrong. The Supreme Court decided the issue 116 years ago

A crowd of people at a Salt Lake County Council meeting, in which a K-6 mask order was overturned.
A crowd at the Salt Lake County Council meeting on Thursday. The council voted 6-3 to overturn the health department’s “order of restraint” that would have required K-6 students to wear masks when school starts next week.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The COVID-19 virus doesn’t care if you think governments should not be allowed to require people to wear masks.

It doesn’t care if you don’t believe that cloth masks, together with social distancing and frequent hand washing, can reduce transmission rates, or if you think, despite all evidence, that vaccines are dangerous.

This is a relentless, invisible army, undeterred after 17 straight months of disrupting lives and economies. And, unlike the rigid and calcified positions of unbending humans, it keeps reinventing itself.

You want evidence? On Thursday, 1,243 new cases were reported in Utah. After months of dwindling numbers, the delta variant has found willing hosts among the many who, for whatever reason, refuse a free vaccine. Yes, some vaccinated people have become sick, as well, a figure that has held steady at a minuscule 0.4%. If you were investing money in a venture that had those odds of failure, it would be called a sure thing.

Listening to the Salt Lake County Council meeting Thursday afternoon was like hearing a condensed version of the arguments that have occupied a hyper-partisan American public since the day Rudy Gobert tested positive.

For some on the council, the 6-3 decision to overturn the mask mandate for school children 12 and under, issued by County Health Director Dr. Angela Dunn, came down to a belief that parents, not the government, should decide whether children wear masks in the face of a deadly pandemic.

In fact, American government has been down this road before, and the council members who hold this opinion are wrong. In 1905, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan said, “Real liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own [liberty], whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”

In other words, you don’t have the right to make someone else sick just because you think health professionals or politicians are wrong.

That 1905 case, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, concerned an outbreak of smallpox. The Board of Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts, ordered all adults to be either vaccinated or revaccinated, whichever applied. Those who refused were fined $5, which is somewhere around $150 in today’s dollars. Massachusetts law allowed boards of health to make such mandates.

Swedish immigrant Henning Jacobson refused, saying he had been vaccinated by force in his home country, and it hadn’t gone well.

The court disagreed in a 7-2 ruling, saying, “in every well ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint … as the safety of the general public may demand.”

That ruling has been cited as a precedent in numerous court cases since. COVID-19, given the number of dead and long-term sick in its wake, ought to qualify as a “great danger.”

Lest you think we have progressed much in 116 years, the Jacobson case gave rise to an anti-vaccine movement that warned against letting science and government decide such matters for average citizens. Smallpox, on the other hand, no longer exists. It was wiped out by immunization.

Those who argue that children are not as vulnerable as adults to serious cases of COVID-19 may be right. But that’s not the main issue here.

As Dr. Dunn explained to me Wednesday, every child who becomes exposed to the virus or who contracts it, no matter how mild the case, will need to miss school for a period of quarantine. Without masks, many children may find themselves in and out of school during the year, disrupting learning for all.

“Masks keep kids in school,” she said. Infected children, meanwhile, can spread the virus to adults.

Back in June, a Harris Poll found that nearly 75% of Americans believed the worst of the pandemic was in the rear view mirror. Today, only 46% feel that way, and the numbers are dropping.

“The reality is that the pandemic is not over,” Dr. Brandon Webb, and Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, said at a recent news conference. “This is a terrible disease that still affects people’s lives and livelihoods.” Wishing it away won’t help.

Right now, the unvaccinated are taking the brunt of the burden, but that may change as new variants continue to develop in human hosts.

Webb said it may be time to ramp up masks and social restrictions once more.

If that raises your hackles and makes you want to shout about government interference, just remember — the virus isn’t listening and doesn’t care.