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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Mask mandate suppresses virus, not rights

The Columbian
Published: June 28, 2020, 6:03am

When most Clark County residents get in a car, either as the driver or a passenger, they fasten a seat belt without giving it a second thought. There is no concern about government overreach or complaints about so-called fascism; there is only an understanding that it is a reasonable safety measure — and that it is the law.

The same can be said for stopping at a stop sign. Or not firing a gun in populated areas. Or not shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Some public safety laws are simply common sense.

The same understanding should apply with Gov. Jay Inslee’s new statewide requirement to wear a mask in public settings. In an effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic and quash an uptick in infections, Inslee issued the order that took effect Friday.

That order applies to everyone older than 5, with exceptions for the deaf or hard of hearing while communicating with someone and for those who have a medical condition that makes wearing a mask difficult. Masks are required in public settings, and businesses are expected to require them for employees and customers.

“I think this is something we can get used to,” Inslee said. “Because we care about others around us.”

That is the point of the order. The wearing of masks during the pandemic is about protecting ourselves from the virus as well as those around us. With businesses reopening, many states have seen sharp increases in the number of infections as people increasingly come into close contact. The United States has about 2.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the virus has contributed to more than 120,000 deaths.

Clark County is hoping to move soon into Phase 3 of the Safe Start program, which will increase interaction and further the risk of spreading the disease. Wearing a mask — along with social distancing and hand washing — can help ensure a successful leap into that phase. As the author of a review of observational studies for British medical journal The Lancet said, “Our findings suggest, in multiple ways, that the use of masks is highly protective in health care and community settings.”

Violation of the statewide mask order is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. In Yakima County, which has seen a surge of cases that is threatening to overwhelm available medical care, a mask violation is a gross misdemeanor with more stringent penalties.

The order largely will be enforced by the honor system, with Inslee saying, “It is not our desire to have hard-working officers following people around on mask issues.” Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins agrees, adding, “The greatest degree of compliance can be achieved through education and awareness, as opposed to taking enforcement action.

Compared with many states, Washington has done an effective job of holding the virus in check since becoming the first state with a known case. Yet some people continue to push back against reasonable public-health measures, complaining that limiting their right to risk the health of others is government oppression.

We disagree, recognizing that suppressing COVID-19 requires a community effort, that wearing a mask is a minor inconvenience and that we do, indeed, care about others around us. We also recognize that the mask order could be in place until a vaccine or a cure for the disease is available, and that it is a small price to pay in the name of public health.

Years ago, many Americans rebelled against new requirements for wearing a seat belt. And then they came to their senses.