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Opinion | The unmasking of Alabama

Don’t look for many masks. People just aren’t wearing them.

(STOCK)

Public schools are opening in a few days or weeks. I teach at UAB, and we return to classes on Aug. 22. Grocery and department stores, restaurants, concerts and sporting events – they’re all open with good crowds, plenty of business.

If you attend a school, or a concert, or even go to a restaurant or grocery store, chances are, you won’t see many masks.

Most employees are no longer masking. Most grocery stores are filled with folks not wearing masks.

What’s different today than, say, this time last year? Where COVID-19 and its myriad of variants are concerned, not much.

Some counties in Alabama, and specifically, Jefferson County where Birmingham is located, are rated as high in community spread of COVID. Yet, nobody is even discussing a mask mandate.

Gov. Kay Ivey was an outlier from most Republican governors when the pandemic started. She supported a shutdown and mandatory masking. Now we’re “used” to COVID. We carelessly discount its danger.

Just the facts for a bit: COVID is still rampant in many communities. Jefferson County is one of those that’s especially seeing a lot of continuing infections, the rate at about 30 percent of those testing showing up positive. As of late last week, more than 730 people were hospitalized with COVID in Alabama. Of those, at least 130 patients are in ICU which means, for some,they’re attached to a ventilator.

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In all, there have been more than 580 million cases worldwide from COVID, 6.4 million deaths. In the United States, there have been 91.5 million cases and more than 1 million deaths. In Alabama, total cases are more than 1.4 million with nearly 20,000 deaths.

Yet, one of the best defenses we have to protect ourselves from the disease is simply putting on a mask. But drop by Publix or your local convenience store. Go to your neighborhood coffee shop or that restaurant you haven’t visited for two and a half years. Get to a crowded sporting event or concert.

Don’t look for many masks. People just aren’t wearing them.

We know all the precautions – stay 6 feet apart, wash our hands frequently, get vaccinated and boosted, wear a damn mask. We hardly take any of these precautions.

All of that is important to me because I have a wife who is immunocompromised. While most cases of COVID these days aren’t nearly as serious as in the beginning, the disease is still killing people at a rate of hundreds a day across the country.

When I take Veronica to the doctor, or when I have to go myself, I still am required to wear a mask. Makes sense to me. But it also makes sense to me to wear one at Publix or Starbucks or at my local Mexican restaurant if I go inside.

Certainly, it makes sense to be masked up in a school classroom, where 30 people are crammed into a classroom designed for 30 students, sitting 2 or 3 feet apart, and who are participating in what are sometimes spirited discussions. Yet even UAB ended mandatory masking requirements inside buildings about halfway through the winter-spring semester.

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I made a deal with my students. If they want to sit up front, please wear a mask. They complied with no complaints. I’m always masked in the classroom, and I will be again when classes start later this month.

I expect my students to wear their masks if they approach me or sit within 6 feet. That’s not an unreasonable demand, and my students don’t think it’s unreasonable.

After all, a mask doesn’t “hurt.” There’s no pain involved. A mask is hardly noticeable once it’s been worn a few days. We can have conversations and, yes, even lecture a class on Ernest Hemingway short stories or June Jordan poetry, all while wearing a mask.

I’m a multitasker. I can pick out my groceries while wearing a mask. I can order lunch. Watch the Barons. See the symphony. My mask doesn’t interfere.

I’m afraid we’ve just given up. Even something as benign as wearing a mask has become a political issue or too burdensome. Forget the silly politics; masks help keep us safe from a terrible disease that has been sweeping the world in wave after wave after wave for two and a half years. Even now, no end is in sight.

Ivey should mandate mask-wearing again. We still must be vigilant. The push for vaccinations must continue. Some people won’t, even if mandated. But more people will.

Those of us who have yet to test positive for COVID – and that’s a minority of people now – do not want to get it any more today than we did back in March of 2020 when the deadly pandemic flooded into Alabama.

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Of those who have wrestled with the plague, many are dealing with long-term COVID – for many infected, the disease just won’t let go. And many who have already had COVID are getting it for a second time or a third time.

We know what to do to mitigate the spread of the disease. We just have to do it.

Many – most? – of us don’t, though. Because it’s a bitinconvenient, right? We don’t like masks or vaccines. We’re huggers and talkers; 6 feet just won’t cut it. We can’t keep it up; it’s just too annoying or embarrassing or troublesome.

So, we take the easiest way – being cautious isn’t difficult, after all, but easy is easy, right, and not wearing mask is easier than wearing a mask.

We’ll all pay, now or eventually.

Because our government doesn’t really intend to protect us, even though it has the obligation, the mandate, the authority. Even when we don’t want it to, government is supposed to protect us.

It doesn’t. And we don’t either, even though we know what we should do. So don’t wear that mask. Yeah, it might save you from serious illness or death, but that might mean sucking up your “pride,” as if a piece of cloth and/or paper has anything to do with your pride.

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Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column each week for the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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