The COVID-19 outbreak has in many cases brought out the best in people. In other cases, well, not so much.
With hot spots for the virus, like New York, clearly identified and even on the White House’s radar screen, there has emerged an “us vs. them” mind-set in some quarters that belies the “we’re all in this together” mantra.
Most recent case in point: Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo, who over the weekend initially targeted anyone arriving in her state with a New York license plate. Cars were stopped at the border by State Police and drivers told in an up-close and personal way of their obligation to quarantine for the next 14 days.
Raimondo also deployed the National Guard to go knocking on the doors of homes in the state’s coastal towns if they spotted cars with New York plates in the driveway.
The local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union called it a “blunderbuss approach,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue, and the two otherwise sensible political leaders briefly engaged in dueling Twitter tirades.
Raimondo amended her original executive order, requiring anyone coming to Rhode Island from any other state for non-work-related purposes to self-quarantine for 14 days. That’s pretty much the policy Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker put in place last week — but Raimondo’s order still imposes the threat of a knock at the door from the National Guard. If nothing else, that will certainly put a damper on the Newport social scene.
The fear and loathing of out-of-staters descending on coastal communities here in Massachusetts may not involve an intimidating knock at the door, but it is nonetheless real. Some of it is grounded in the perennial tensions between “townies” and “summer people,” but it’s exacerbated by very real concerns that small community hospitals could be quickly overrun if those already infected with the virus land on their doorsteps.
A petition signed by nearly 6,000 Cape Cod residents, promoting the closure of the two bridges leading to the Cape to all but year-round residents and trucks bringing supplies, speaks to that tension and those fears.
The Cape, summer home to thousands, is dependent on Cape Cod Hospital (269 beds) and Falmouth Hospital (103 beds). As of Monday, Barnstable County had 173 cases of COVID-19.
And on the islands, Nantucket Cottage Hospital has a mere 23 beds. Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, according to the Massachusetts Hospital Association, has 31 beds and has been running an active testing program and helping care for those in home quarantine. In fact, the two hospitals issued a joint statement saying, “If you have a summer home here — we are asking you to stay at your home residence. . . . We have limited medical resources here on the Island and they are dwindling rapidly.”
Governor Baker had the Cape and the Berkshires in mind when the executive order he issued Tuesday included a prohibition on all hotel and motel stays and short-term rentals through Airbnb and other services except where deemed essential — for example, for Massachusetts residents who have been displaced and for health care workers.
“They may no longer be booked for leisure or vacation purposes,” Baker said.
The consequences of staying in a place that seems quiet and calm are indeed fraught with their own complications and risks. And Baker’s move anticipates that those risks will only grow greater as the weather improves and summer residents and tourists alike seek safe outdoor space.
Those are entirely rational fears.
But there are also fears of the irrational variety — like the recent incident in the island community of Vinalhaven, Maine, where a group of locals delivered their own version of vigilante justice. They cut down a tree to block the driveway of a home being rented to three roommates to make sure they were “quarantined.”
In fact, the guys were construction workers from New Jersey who had been living and working there since September, state Representative Genevieve McDonald said on her Facebook page.
“Now is not the time to develop or encourage an ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” she wrote. “Targeting people because of their license plates will not serve any of us well.”
Well said. There’s a lesson there for public officials as well.
The days ahead will indeed be difficult, and more than ever people need to behave responsibly. The shortages of ventilators, test kits, and hospital beds — the shameful consequence of the federal government’s incompetence and lack of preparedness — has forced states into an unwelcome competition for critical supplies, and that rivalry may aggravate the temptation for different groups of Americans to blame one another for the tough times ahead. But these trying days won’t be made any easier by turning on one another based on where people call home and the color of their license plates.
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