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OPINION

Anti-mask America descends into irrational anger

There is no place for threats or violence in the debate over pandemic precautions.

A crowd of angry, largely unmasked people objecting to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards's mask mandate for schools shouts in opposition to wearing a face covering at a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, Aug. 18, in Baton Rouge.
A crowd of angry, largely unmasked people objecting to Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards's mask mandate for schools shouts in opposition to wearing a face covering at a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, Aug. 18, in Baton Rouge.Melinda Deslatte/Associated Press

Mixed-up America is descending into a bullying belligerence in the face of reasonable pandemic precautions.

We are witnessing angry tirades, threats of violence, and even physical assaults at public meetings. School and public health officials and pro-mask parents have been harassed, threatened, menaced, and attacked.

Anti-maskers see mask requirements as either a threat to their children’s health or an intolerable imposition on their liberty. Both notions constitute silliness on stilts.

Despite vehement assertions rooted in chimerical pseudo-science, there’s little credible evidence for the notion that masks somehow harm children’s health. Although nothing is ever disproved to the satisfaction of those who have made a quest of the quixotic, the oft-repeated notions that masks somehow cause oxygen deprivation or carbon dioxide build-up or force the inhalation of toxins or impede lung development have been thoroughly debunked.

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There is, on the other hand, considerable and persuasive evidence that mask-wearing reduces transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. Yes, the risks of contracting symptomatic COVID-19 are low if you are vaccinated. But too much of adult America isn’t, which is why ICUs are filling back up with COVID patients.

Meanwhile, children under 12 are not vaccinated at all; that probably won’t start until year’s end. Further, despite the repeated claims that kids don’t suffer seriously upon contracting COVID-19, some 500 children nationwide have died of it. Meanwhile, in the week ending Aug. 26, there were at least 204,000 cases of children with COVID, with hospitalizations averaging 330 a day.

So: In a circumstance of no real risk versus low but real risk, prudence has to prevail, particularly if the point of dispute is a non-onerous public health precaution.

A larger conclusion should be equally apparent: Districts can’t be expected to accommodate anti-mask sentiment; if parents simply won’t have their children abide by a mask mandate, they should find a short-term educational alternative.

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Schools, however, are only one flashpoint. Air travel is another. Boorishness has taken wing.

Bad airborne behavior obviously preceded this pandemic, but the frequency of fractious flyers is increasing. As of Aug. 30, the Federal Aviation Administration has some 4,090 reports of problem passengers in 2021; 2,999 of those incidents, or almost 75 percent, were over masks. In pre-pandemic 2019, the agency investigated 146 cases; this year, it has already launched 727 such investigations.

Fights on flights and in airports have become a regular YouTube thing, with belligerents swinging away like so many guests on Jerry Springer’s late and unlamented show.

As with uninformed parents, some mask-rejecting air travelers seem not to realize that mask-wearing isn’t just about protecting oneself, but also about keeping the wearer from spreading possible virus. Or, as the public health experts put it: My mask helps protect you, your mask helps protect me. Others apparently don’t feel any obligation to be part of such a joint exercise in safeguarding one another’s health. (Still others seem not to realize that one’s nose is part of the human respiratory system.)

Ideally, it would be flight attendants who enforced those rules. But on recent (Delta) flights, I found they tended to ignore obvious violations — and with so much vitriol in the air, you can understand why.

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So how do you deal with a problem like airborne mayhem?

One way is with much stiffer fines, as the FAA is doing.

But there should be further consequences as well. Here are two I favor: Anyone who repeatedly refuses to put on a mask in an airplane should be banned from flying for the duration of the FAA’s mask mandate, which currently runs through Jan. 18. In addition to fines and prosecution, anyone who assaults a flight attendant or a fellow passenger should be banned for at least five years.

A public health emergency sometimes requires adjustments that some find uncomfortable or inconvenient or that run afoul of their poorly considered principles or antisocial solipsism. If anti-maskers insist on acting like temperamental adolescents unable to follow rules they disagree with, they need a time out of the air. And if they are so poorly behaved that they start a fight, they need to be grounded.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.