Gov. Ralph Northam began his news briefing Tuesday with something unusual, even extraordinary, for a politician.
Our society would be better off if lots of other politicians — on all sides — showed that kind of humility.
In this case, Northam apologized for appearing at Virginia Beach over the weekend without a face mask — and posing for photos with well-wishers while clearly standing within six feet of them.
Northam was roasted on social media for violating his own medical advice. “Physician, heal thyself,” tweeted House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County.
On Tuesday, Northam explained that he was at the beach to meet with city officials as the oceanfront reopened under certain rules and that he was simply unprepared to run into ordinary people who wanted to chat and take his picture. His mask, he said, was in his car. “I was unprepared,” Northam said. “I wasn’t prepared to be involved with the public. The next time I’m out in the public I will be better prepared.”
That apology doesn’t address the six-feet violation, but it’s still a notable contrast with certain other politicians. Northam didn’t whine. He didn’t blame. He didn’t try to excuse. He straight-up said he wasn’t prepared and will be next time.
The photos are still pretty damning — in some ways more so than the controversial photos on his yearbook page from medical school. Those photos were never conclusively proven to be his. And even if they were, they don’t reflect the life he’s led since or the actions he’s taken as a public official. The beach photos, though, are right now, and contradict all the medical advice he’s been giving Virginians. The apology doesn’t wipe all that way. Still, it’s a rare politician who so forthrightly admits a mistake and blames himself.
Here’s also a point that may get overlooked: While Northam shouldn’t have been crowding in for a selfie, his maskless appearance at the beach doesn’t violate the order he gave Tuesday for all Virginians to wear masks in certain indoor settings. It just doesn’t model the best behavior. We’ve always needed elected officials to set an example — perhaps we should emphasize a positive example. On this one, Northam failed a pop quiz — just not as badly as President Trump did when he ridiculed Joe Biden for wearing a mask over Memorial Day weekend. Still, by leaving his mask in the car, Northam left some of his moral standing there, as well.
Anyway, onto the mask order itself. One of the easiest predictions we’ve ever made: This will be controversial.
It’s unclear why wearing a mask to stop the spread the spread of a deadly virus has prompted such a backlash. We’re all accustomed to signs at stores that declare: “No shoes, no shirt, no service.” Is it a violation of someone’s “rights” that they be ordered to wear shoes and a shirt to enter a place of business? If that’s not, and the order to wear a mask is, then presumably those rights begin somewhere around the neck? What’s the difference between the two, other than wearing shoes and shirts to get served is a long-established custom and wearing a mask isn’t?
State Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield County, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, declares on her Facebook page: “I will not be masked, tested, tracked or chipped to support this liberal agenda. This will not be my ‘new normal’” We’re not sure what kind of conspiracy theories she’s indulging about being “tracked or chipped,” but when is fighting the spread of a virus a liberal thing? If you don’t want the virus to be part of a “new normal,” then we all need to do what we can to avoid spreading it. And, really, we’re not being asked here to do all that much. Closing businesses — that’s a different matter, of course. That is a major sacrifice, as the unemployment numbers show. But wearing a mask in certain situations? What’s the big deal? Seventy-five years ago, our forebears were drafted to go fight a war and those who remained on the home front were forced to endure rationing so that we could do battle with enemies an ocean away. Here we’re being asked to fight a foreign invader in our midst — a microscopic one but an invader nonetheless — by wearing a mask and standing six feet apart? That’s all? Compared to the sacrifice that some made — at Normandy, at Iwo Jima, at lots of other places — the complaints today would seem laughable if they weren’t so sadly self-centered.
On the other hand, the emotional reaction that some have to wearing masks is not something unique to 2020. It’s fully in keeping with American history. During the great flu pandemic of 1918 — which killed far more people than COVID-19 has or likely will — there was an active anti-mask movement, most notably in San Francisco.
San Francisco that year distinguished itself by reacting earlier — and more strongly — than other American cities as the virus spread. One of the first things health officials did was encourage, and then require, masks. “The wearing of a mask immediately became of a symbol of wartime patriotism,” says the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine. The Red Cross said anyone not wearing a mask was considered “a dangerous slacker.” The governor of California (a Republican, if anyone is keeping political score) said wearing mask was the “patriotic duty for every American citizen.” Not everyone, though, felt so patriotic. Many people refused to wear masks and police were sent out to arrest them. On one day, police arrested 110 people, on another day, 175. (Northam says his rule will be enforced by health officials, not police). Some were sentenced to 10 days in jail. When a blacksmith stood on a street corner shouting to passersby to ditch their masks, a health inspector showed up and a scuffle ensued. Health inspectors in those days were armed — and the San Francisco Chronicle reported that this particular health inspector pulled his weapon and shot both the offending blacksmith and two bystanders, none fatally. In time, San Francisco saw the formation of an Anti-Mask League that clamored for the mask rule to be dropped. Eventually it was, but not until after 3,000 people in the city had died.
If people then objected to wearing masks despite such a fearsome death toll (675,000 in the U.S. alone), we should not be surprised that some today object to them when the death toll from COVID-19, while high, is much lower. Yet we suspect those people objecting to masks still want the diners at the next table to wear shoes and shirts.