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Phillip Tutor: Behind the masks of a global pandemic


Bob Broom, 87, of Anniston faces a changed world in a mask. 

No Alabama politician or police officer or doctor is making you wear a face mask in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s still your choice. For now.

But, the facts. 

Alabama’s number of reported cases and deaths from this novel coronavirus is nonetheless rising by the hour. 

Gov. Kay Ivey finally issued a statewide shelter-in-place order effective Saturday afternoon. 

One dire estimate, from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, predicts Alabama won’t reach its peak for average daily deaths and shortage of intensive-care beds for another two-plus weeks. 

Calhoun County officials are steeled against an expected surge of COVID-19-positive patients that may overload Anniston’s hospitals and endanger our doctors and nurses.

And those face masks? 

“Anything is on the table in respect to protecting our community and in respect to not overloading our health care system,” Anniston Mayor Jack Draper said. “That’s what this is really about.”

As of Friday afternoon, no face-mask ordinance was on the horizon for Anniston. (As is the case in our other cities, I presume.) But as this disease leaks across state lines and city boundaries, what now sounds ludicrous — laws against going maskless or fines for flaunting quarantine regulations — may become temporary norms.

The City Council in Laredo, Texas, passed an emergency ordinance this week that allows police to charge residents with a Class C misdemeanor and a $1,000 fine if they’re caught maskless in public.

In California, employees at grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores and gas stations in San Diego County are now required to wear face masks. No exceptions. In Hidalgo County, Texas, residents there who break curfew or stay-at-home ordinances could be jailed (180 days) or fined (up to $1,000).

And in Louisville, Ky., judges are forcing residents who refuse to self-quarantine after possible COVID-19 exposure to wear ankle bracelets that monitor their whereabouts.

Remove the devastating global death toll of this disease — nearly 60,000 — and this mishmash of local ordinances illustrates the never-ending juggle between Americans’ personal freedoms and the government’s duty to protect us, even if we wish it would leave us alone. I’m not a fan of stop signs or speed limits, but laws against vehicular manslaughter exist for a good reason. So I mostly follow them.

What’s more, the conflicting messages from the White House, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have baked distrust into this essential question: Should you wear a face mask — even if it’s homemade, or perhaps a scarf — during this global pandemic?

The White House isn’t sure. The WHO has steadfastly advised that people should wear masks only if they are sick or work in health-care settings. The CDC, once in agreement with the WHO, now says we should wear “cloth masks” in public. And researchers at Yale University, according to The New York Times, are adamant.

Make your own masks, and mask up. In public. Every time.

“It is critically important that public adoption not come at the expense of medical mask availability for health workers,” Jason Abaluck, an associate professor at the Yale, said. “This is why we emphasize universal adoption of cloth masks.” 

This pandemic, in Draper’s view as the mayor of a city with 21,000 residents and two hospitals, is “an extraordinary situation that we find ourselves in.” That many Americans recoil against public mask-wearing doesn’t help, though. 

Vanity and personal freedoms vs. public health and death tolls?

Which leads to this admission: A few hours Friday before Ivey announced Alabama’s stay-at-home order, I went shopping.

I didn’t wear a face mask.

But a good number of shoppers at the Winn-Dixie in Golden Springs — 1 out of every 7 or 8, maybe — did, which surprised me. A few employees, too. A produce stocker, a clerk at the flower stand, a cashier.

Publix in Oxford didn’t have that many. 

Masked customers at Target in Oxford Exchange were scarce, one or two, perhaps.

This “extraordinary situation” may alter that paradigm, though. Perhaps it should, even if it means a temporary sacrificing of our vanity and personal freedoms.

I don’t believe Calhoun County’s cities will start fining maskless people. I asked Draper if he agreed, and he essentially did, though “I recognize that any measure we could reasonably take would have to be considered,” he said.

But if that happens, you’ve been forewarned. Public safety trumps vanity, as it should.



Phillip Tutor — — is a Star columnist. Follow him at