Anyone naive enough to think the community would quickly heal itself after the election was sadly mistaken. The pandemic continues, and that is a focal point of suspicion, angst and rage.
Next week, the Tahlequah City Council will vote on whether to revamp the ordinance requiring facial masks. The change would allow the city to extend the mandate, or cut if off earlier than its expiration date of Nov. 30. Emotions are high, and although party politics might affect attitudes at the national level, that's not necessarily the case for Tahlequah. And while many who deem themselves progressive want the mandate to continue, others are pushing back. One city councilor, who doesn't oppose masks per se but objects to a mandate, is asking for feedback. The Nov. 12 meeting, wherein a vote is expected, could be contentious.
There are no easy answers, but whatever side they fall on, officials believe their own positions will be best. Either way will offend, because the mandate has been difficult to enforce, as Police Chief Nate King has frankly said. So those who are accusing officials of "self-serving" behavior are off the mark - unless by "self-serving" they mean doing what constituents want, even to bolster chances of reelection. Many people are ambivalent about mandates, because they see problems on both sides. Others dislike the mandate, but themselves are wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The issue is nuanced, but many people are spreading misinformation, and the truth might help some people decide where they stand.
First, mask mandates are not unconstitutional. Any public health crisis can trigger measures - like mask mandates, and worse. Some people feel their liberties are being infringed upon, but that's a matter of internal feelings, not a matter of law. The state itself - or health officials on the payroll - could impose a statewide mandate, but Gov. Kevin Stitt chose not to, saying instead that cities could do it themselves. The fly in the ointment is that it's unclear whether Stitt has the authority to pass the buck. State law does say a "health official" can institute quarantine proceedings, but that's more of an individual rather than collective action - and it would typically occur when the person has a contagious disease. So some purists would argue the law is murky as to those who aren't sick, and litigation could force a court to decide.
Second, it's ludicrous to take the word of a politician over that of a health care professional, regarding what will and will not work to tamp down the pandemic. The best evidence, believed almost universally by reputable scientists and doctors, is that masks are not foolproof, but they do help mitigate the spread. Claiming masks don't work because the virus is still spreading is a syllogism, because ordinances notwithstanding, too many people are not wearing them. As for social distancing, any fool can deduce that steering clear of others outside our orbits is a good safeguard. This is why many providers, the elderly, people with preexisting conditions and business owners lean toward a mandate.
Third, with or without a mandate, business owners have the right to deny entry to people who refuse to wear masks. They can limit occupancy and take other measures to protect employees and customers. That's the free market at work, and those who object can take their business elsewhere, but threatening to sue is laughable.
Fourth, mandates are difficult to enforce. Anti-maskers can use a similar argument to the one Second Amendment supporters employ about gun control: If you make a law requiring masks, the only people who will obey it are the ones who wear them, anyway. Although cops will show up if an anti-masker becomes belligerent with a business owner trying to enforce the mandate, it would be impossible to respond to every complaint of a mask-free face.
Fifth, we must all take responsibility for our own health, because far too many others don't care about their friends and neighbors. They're too selfish at the moment, though they may eventually see the err of their ways. So those who believe in masks and social distancing can shun businesses that don't require their use. Business owners, too, have a dilemma. They may have to decide which clientele they value the most - or perhaps, which will bring in the most profit.
Sixth, express your opinion to city councilors. And the opinions of rural residents count, because they shop Tahlequah, too. City officials will have a tough decision to make, but we have every reason to believe they'll listen, even if they can't satisfy everyone. And whatever happens, the hateful attacks on social media need to stop. They are doing more harm to this community than the unmasked.