Comment: Were masks really such an imposition on liberty?

Tell that to residents of Shanghai, locked in their homes for weeks. Or those with comrpomised immune systems.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

The whoops echoed through airplanes as flight attendants and pilots announced midair that a judge in Florida had tossed out the federal mask mandate that has been in effect since January 2021.

On a Southwest flight from Nashville to Charlotte, passengers hooted and hollered and twirled their freshly ditched masks in the air with giddy delight. They reveled in the knowledge that while they might be required to buckle their seat belt, turn off their cellphone, put their seat backs in the upright position and refrain from smoking on their grueling one-hour-and-20-minute flight, the one thing they would not have to do was wear a mask. The long, torturous nightmare of government overreach, which is how so many aggrieved passengers viewed the mandate effecting public transportation, has come to an end. Maybe.

The judge’s ruling doesn’t preclude local authorities and private companies from requiring masks. And some transit systems and airports continue to insist that customers and staff remain masked. Notably, masks still are required on New York subways and at both LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy airports. And, of course, the pandemic is full of twists and turns, including the BA.2 omicron subvariant which is driving new coronavirus cases along the East Coast. There may well be new federal guidance to make sense of.

But for the moment, there are squeals of unbridled delight, which aren’t so much a reflection of just how onerous the mask mandate has been but rather just how childish and selfish so much of the country has been in dealing with it.

Social media has been full of examples of airline passengers turning petulant and violent over mask rules, as if in the time before masks people had been able to party like the Wolves of Wall Street on planes and now suddenly they were being forced to strap into a teeny-tiny seat with limited leg room and survive on bags of miniature pretzels. Masks are uncomfortable, but there are so many other aspects of flying that have been awful for such a very, very long time and most of those long-standing terrible circumstances resulted from airlines simply trying to raise revenue, not the government attempting to figure out in real time how to keep people from getting sick from a new virus or worse. And yet, passengers chose to fight the mask battle.

Yes, there’s reason enough to breathe a sigh of relief that life isn’t as scary as it was in 2020. It doesn’t feel quite like we’re still trying to dodge invisible bullets. For those who are vaccinated, relatively healthy, financially stable and with access to decent health care, there’s reason to unclench your jaw. But the cheers about being set free — as if a mask was equivalent to a straitjacket — surely must sound insensitive to those who are still feeling quite trapped because of poor health, work circumstances or the risks faced by those within their inner circle who are immunocompromised.

The shouts of joy are a reminder that after everything people have been through collectively these past two years, we are emerging from the darkness still as absorbed by our individual circumstances as ever. We complained bitterly about having to wear a mask as a benefit to others. Others.

That was always the problem. That was the aspect of mask-wearing that seemed to irritate people most. A mask wasn’t going to do an individual full good unless the community cooperated and everyone wore one. For all the complaining about government control, the real terror was the realization of how interconnected the world is. No wall or visa requirement would save the day. A choice made across the ocean or around the corner made a difference in our daily lives.

It’s impossible to listen to the joyful hurrahs in response to the judge’s order and not think about the residents of one Shanghai community. The city’s 25 million residents have been locked in their homes for weeks as part of the government’s zero-covid policy. They’ve faced shortages of food and medicine, even as there has recently been some easing of restrictions. Video showed a sweeping view of the paralyzed metropolis at night. High-rises are aglow. And the screams of a neighborhood, in a cathartic release of frustration and stress, cut through the night air.

Their reality makes one consider more closely whether the lifting of our modest federal mask mandate is deserving of cheers or just a quiet murmur of relief, maybe even gratitude. After all, just how much did wearing a mask hinder a hale and hearty person from getting to their final destination? How much did it alter their ability to move about? And how much did it help protect our health so that we had the capacity to move at all?

According to Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, who voided the mask mandate, the rule was unlawful because it exceeded the statutory authority of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mandate relied, in part, on the government’s argument that it was put in place for purposes of “sanitation.” After dutifully scouring dictionary definitions of the word, Mizelle determined that masks did not sanitize anything even though science has shown that high-quality, well-fitting masks diminish the risk of coronavirus laced respiratory droplets being transmitted from person to person, which seems like the exact definition of “sanitation,” which to be clear is “the promotion of hygiene and prevention of disease by maintenance of sanitary conditions.”

Mizelle is new to the bench. She was nominated in 2020 by President Donald Trump. At the time, the American Bar Association gave her an unqualified rating because of her limited experience practicing law. She was confirmed with 49 Republican votes and none from Democrats. All of which is to say that the mandate was revoked by a judge who studied economics and philosophy and who consulted a dictionary for enlightenment. This was not a case of a medical body taking note of the science. And that doesn’t seem like cause for raucous cheers. Not at all.

The mask mandate was thrown out. The most reasonable reaction may simply be to take a deep breath and hope.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press. Follow her on Twitter @RobinGivhan.

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