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Facing up to the maskless

Nobody wants those who ignore public health advice to get sick, but you also want to throttle them

On Thursday night, the New York Young Republicans Club hosted their annual gala, where dozens of guests posed maskless and shoulder to shoulder with congressman Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who has mocked the pandemic.Associated Press

And they call us snowflakes.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my family of three went for a hike in our beloved Lynn Woods. Its gorgeous, less-trafficked trails have kept us sane and connected through many seasons — and especially during this pandemic. Some of the paths are quite narrow, so, in the rare instance that we’re passing somebody, we’ll pull on our masks.

But one bare-faced, older man on the trail didn’t like that.

“You should take off those masks,” he said. “You need the oxygen.”

How should we respond to the Mr. Oxygens of the world? He was not just opting not to wear a mask himself, but proselytizing against it, parroting the idiotic anti-science rhetoric of the president and his cult. They mock liberals for being weak, then whine about how uncomfortable they feel with a little cloth on their faces.


Nobody wants folks like him to get sick, but you also want to throttle them.

While we three were meandering through the woods, millions of Americans were disregarding the pleas of health workers, who had begged them to forgo travel and large gatherings for just this holiday, so that more of us would survive to see the next one. We’re already seeing sharp spikes in infections, and the full impact of Thanksgiving hasn’t yet come clear. It’s enraging to see.

We’re increasingly told it’s a bad idea to judge and shame those who flout the health guidelines that could protect us all, that stigmatizing them makes it less likely those who test positive will inform their contacts and go into isolation. All of that makes it harder to control the pandemic, according to experts.

Fair enough, but we’re not dealing here only with well-meaning people with pandemic fatigue, or folks who are trying to be careful but slipping up occasionally: A chunk of those flouting mask-wearing and other recommendations are doing it deliberately, as a political statement, to own the libs. They’re following the deadly example of Republicans up and down the ticket who built political campaigns around mocking science and good sense as signs of weakness.


Going maskless has become an article of faith among devotees of the president. On Thursday night, the New York Young Republicans Club posted pictures of their annual gala where dozens of guests posed maskless and shoulder to shoulder with congressman Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who has mocked the pandemic. A tweet by the group’s head read “Eat [Expletive] Antifa! God Bless America!”

Charming. At what point is it OK to demand that people take the personal responsibility that Republicans are always banging on about? Or is personal responsibility only for those who need certain kinds of help from the government — poor Americans, Black people, immigrants, the millions trying to stave off hunger and eviction?

Lord knows, the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been content to let the most vulnerable twist in the wind as the virus their party would not tame has ravaged this country. Back when the pandemic first hit and the economy imploded, prompting passage of the CARES Act relief package, we got endless warnings from Republicans who argued that if you gave unemployed people too much help they wouldn’t want to go back to work. Personal responsibility!


They were underestimating both workers and the mess we’re in. And by refusing to entertain further help for ordinary Americans, even as they downplayed the virus, Republicans guaranteed that we’d end up here, in the worst of all worlds: a pandemic raging out of control, and an economy in free fall. Millions more Americans have fallen into poverty since the pandemic started. Lines for food banks in some cities are miles long, and millions will lose unemployment benefits and eviction protections by the end of the year.

Now, in this most desperate moment, it seems like McConnell is finally open to providing relief. But rest assured, whatever emerges will be wholly insufficient. And unless Democrats pick up both those seats in Georgia for control of the Senate next month, it will likely remain so.

McConnell and his fellow Republicans are the ones who deserve to be judged and shamed here. If anybody deserves a stigma it’s these soulless cynics, whose negligence has brought us to this miserable moment.

So what did I say to Mr. Oxygen in the woods? This masked snowflake took a deep breath, and said nothing at all.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.