N95 and surgical face masks. Credit: Ronni Newton / We-Ha.com
Barth Keck
BARTH KECK

My wife and I attended our daughter’s indoor soccer tournament a week ago, something for which we’re grateful since very few youth sports were played at this time last year due to COVID-19. A vaccine, a high vaccination rate, and masks are the reason kids have been able to return to games.

During a break in the tournament action, we took the opportunity to do some food shopping. As we walked through the grocery store, I was struck by the number of people – perhaps up to a third, including employees – not wearing masks. Everyone at the soccer tournament wore masks, so why the sudden drop-off in the store?

In a word, “mandates.” The soccer tournament was in Middletown, a city that had recently issued a universal mask mandate that requires citizens to wear face coverings in municipal buildings and in places of business and employment. A handful of other Connecticut municipalities have done likewise. The grocery store, however, was located in Cromwell, a town with the more typical mandate that applies only to municipal buildings.

All mask mandates, apparently, have some impact – at least according to my very limited and unscientific observation.

Dan Haar, columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media, did a more extensive – albeit, still unscientific – “study” when he visited five grocery stores and one big-box store in six different towns. All but one of the stores exhibited a mask-wearing rate of 79% or higher, with the outlier scoring only 25%.

Curiously, just two of the towns scoring above 79% had universal mask mandates – Norwalk and New Haven — meaning North Haven, Milford and Stratford had achieved respectable mask-wearing rates without comprehensive mandates. Seymour, the town with the 25% rate, also lacks such a mandate.

What to make of all this information? Do mandates work? Why do some towns without universal mandates still achieve high mask-wearing rates while a few do not?

New data on masks is being analyzed daily, but one “cohort study” of 44 European and Asian countries has already found that mandates not only encouraged citizens to wear masks, but also resulted in healthier outcomes.

“This study’s significant results show that face mask mandates were associated with lower COVID-19 deaths rates compared with countries without mandates,” reported the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. “These findings support use of face masks to prevent excess COVID-19 deaths, and should be advised during airborne disease epidemics.”

The United States has lacked a similar policy – or a nationwide COVID-19 policy of any type. America, historically, has passed off such strategies to the states, many of which have themselves responded to the pandemic tepidly, making minimal restrictions and refusing to issue mandates.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, for example, has been hesitant to issue statewide policies, usually preferring local leaders to take the reins. Even as he announced Friday that he wants to extend his emergency powers over public health, he has previously used those powers to defer to local leaders:

“Governor Ned Lamont announced [on Aug. 5, 2021] that he has signed an executive order related to the COVID-19 emergency declarations (Executive Order No. 13A) that provides municipal leaders with the option of requiring masks in indoor public places within their respective towns and cities for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status.”

The result has been a statewide patchwork of local policies – especially regarding masks – leaving many people frustrated.

“It puts businesses in the position of having to be the mask cops,” said Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns. “By and large, towns are finding that most people are complying with the requirements of local businesses to wear masks. Unfortunately, there’s a small segment of the population that just refuses to do so, and that just makes it much more difficult.”

And therein lies the problem: In a country where “my constitutional right” has become a one-size-fits-all mantra, not wearing a mask has become a cause célèbre, public health be damned. Never mind that science says masks prevent the spread of COVID. And don’t bother picking up the type of mask most effective in inhibiting the omicron variant, even if your town is providing them for free.

This is America, and it’s your right to spread a virus among strangers!

Thankfully, many people in Connecticut still believe in the common good and choose to wear a mask during a pandemic, mandate or not.

My daughter’s most recent indoor soccer game in Farmington – a town without a universal mask mandate – was a case in point: Every person I saw wore a mask, as requested by the facility. Granted, some people still need to learn that exposed noses and the “chin-strap look” are not effective mask-wearing styles – something I’ve seen in school since August of 2020 when staff and students began wearing masks. Still, everyone at the game had a mask.

Perhaps it’s not mandates causing people to wear masks so much as it is a sense of selflessness. Thankfully, most people in Connecticut exhibit this selflessness. If only that value could somehow outweigh “my constitutional right,” we could make this pandemic endemic sooner rather than later.

But I’m not holding my breath. Underneath my mask, of course.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 31st year as an English teacher and 16th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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