Opinion: Gov. Gianforte should lead on mask safety

Evan Barrett

Several weeks ago America crossed a terrible threshold – 4000 people killed in a day by the coronavirus – and that has continued and gone up.  Nationally, new COVID-19 cases since January 1 are over 5 million, an average of over 200,000 a day.

We’re over 425,000 deaths nationally from the more than 25.3 million who have been infected so far, and it’s getting worse.  Since you started reading this column, one or two more Americans have died because currently an American dies of the virus every 20 seconds.

Lest you’ve been numbed by the scale of these seemingly faceless deaths, remember that over 1150 of those dead were right here in Montana where over 91,000 have been afflicted. That’s over 1150 lonely Montana deaths and 1150 families impacted – brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, cousins – in addition to community impact. 

Things are bad, very bad, and public health officials tell us they are going to get worse before the positive effect of vaccines take place, which is many months away.

How bad is it? In all the wars of the 20th century—World War I, World War II, as well as the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars – combat deaths of US soldiers totaled just over 426,000. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears we have already lost that many American souls in less than one year – as many deaths as all war dead in the entire twentieth century. That huge death toll stands in stark contrast to statements like the “within a couple of days [our number of 15 cases] is going to be down to close to zero,” and “one day – it’s like a miracle – it will disappear.”  

Yes, this horrible mess and tragic death total was brought about by bad decisions and inaction by elected leaders, including the President, who ignored the recommendations of public health experts. Virtually all medical and public health experts tell us that the single most important thing we can do to protect each other from the virus is to wear a face mask. Political leaders ignoring that uniform advice have been consciously putting perceived political advantage or dogma over the health and safety of their citizens.

That is the context as Governor Gianforte assumes office. The Governor has signaled that he will soon rescind the previous governor’s order to wear masks in enclosed public places – a public health policy that protects all Montanans. This change will directly endanger our already exhausted health care workers, first responders, store clerks, waitresses, barkeeps, and other front-line workers who help to keep our economy on its feet and our daily lives livable.  In fact, that proposed act by the Governor risks endangering all of us. 

Governor Gianforte has a rationale, in fact several, for taking this action that will bring harm to Montanans.  First, he feels it will help the economy. As an economic development professional for 25 years, I submit that masks and social distancing allow people to be out and about while somewhat protected. And by reducing cases, masks advance the time when the economy can reach recovery.

The Governor says it’s about freedom and personal responsibility, which seem to reflect Republican Party dogma rather than thoughtful public health criteria.  Governor Gianforte looks to be catering to his supporters who can’t be bothered to make a small sacrifice by wearing a mask, because a mask order–temporary, mind you–infringes on their individual freedoms.

But in this country we collectively agree to pass and enforce laws every day that ensure public safety and the common good.  We have traffic laws, food and drug protections, fire codes, and regulation of hazardous materials, just to name a few.  We collectively make these small sacrifices in individual liberty so that we may all be safer, healthier, and more prosperous.

It is perplexing that this anti-mask so-called “freedom” attitude and unwillingness to sacrifice for the common good contrasts greatly with the many huge sacrifices of our soldiers today and the ultimate sacrifices made in combat by those 426,000+ soldiers who died protecting us over the entire 20th century.

Now I know Governor Gianforte to be a person of intelligence and a man of conscience.  I ask him, in his leadership role, to reflect both his intelligence and conscience and drop this foolish plan to endanger us all by removing the mask mandate.

Evan Barrett lives in historic Uptown Butte after retiring following 47 years at the top level of Montana economic development, government, politics and education.  He is an award-winning producer of Montana history videos who continues to write columns and commentaries and occasionally teaches Montana history.