During an ongoing pandemic, the last thing we should be arguing over is the use of PPE. When a majority of medical experts are recommending mask use to slow down infection rates, the last thing we should be doing is protesting the use of said masks. But during a period when we are also seeing mass protests against police brutality and increasingly militant calls to defund and even abolish the police, we have to ask a very important question: do we want those very same police to be the ones enforcing mask laws? Is the state really the best solution to the problem at hand?
As usual, the answer is no. We have already seen the disproportionate enforcement and use of violence against people of color play out in terms of mask laws. Due to unjust racial profiling, black and brown individuals have been targeted for wearing masks, especially homemade masks, bandanas, scarves, and other makeshift alternatives utilized by those who do not own proper medical masks. Two black men at a WalMart in Illinois were followed into the store by a police officer and forced to leave while the officer escorted them out, with his hand on his pistol, all for wearing masks. And not even makeshift masks, but actual proper medical masks. This has led many black and brown individuals to question the safety of even wearing masks due to the potential violence faced due to racial profiling, and having to weigh that against the very real health risk posed by not masking up. This raises additional concerns, seeing as how black and brown people face a higher risk of illness and even death from coronavirus due to such things as the disproportionate rates of poverty, more densely populated living situations, higher rates of incarceration, and a lack of adequate resources and/or healthcare.
But even choosing to not wear a mask to avoid police harassment and violence doesn’t seem to work as we have seen time and time again videos of cops using excessive force against black and brown people for failing to wear masks as mandated, many times by officers also failing to engage in proper mask use themselves. It’s truly a damned if you do, damned if you don’t kind of situation, which at the end of the day is just further proof that police should not be the ones in charge of enforcing mask usage. This has become such an issue that even vice presidential candidate and fellow cop, Kamala Harris, took notice and co-wrote a letter with Senator Cory Booker addressing the issue, while obviously doing nothing of substance to actually fix the problem.
Police have even gone as far as seizing masks that black activists had ordered to distribute to their communities in various areas, thus making it more difficult for those communities to comply and compounding their legal and medical risks.
The situation has even gained such attention that Ohio attempted to respond by allowing exemptions to mask laws specifically for non-white individuals, prompting immediate backlash from those who viewed the idea of a legal exemption based on race to be its own form of racism. This has led to the exemption being overturned.
This is not to mention the movement among “Constitutional Sheriffs” to reject enforcing mask laws that are in place, thus making the state laws even less effective.
But what is the alternative? If we want mask use to be mandatory in public spaces then we need state laws in place, correct? Well, no. The fact is, a majority of the places we frequent on a regular basis are on private property. Work, the grocer, the gym, many of your favorite restaurants and hang out spots…all private property. This means that they can set their own rules without the need for the state.
Many businesses are responding to this pandemic by enacting safety measures, including plastic barriers at checkout counters to separate customers from employees, providing hand sanitizer and handwashing stations, switching to disposable and single-use items to avoid contamination, installing temperature check stations, switching aisles to be one-way, enforcing social distancing measures as best as possible, and yes, mandating mask usage. While some of this is purely safety theater, some of these measures do make things safer, even if only marginally. Employees must follow these measures or risk losing their jobs. Customers must follow these measures or risk being refused service and escorted off the property. But what about businesses that refuse to implement such measures?
This is where some fall back on the idea of resorting to state law. If businesses won’t do so voluntarily then we must compel them to by threat of legal recourse, right? Well, again, no. Market pressure does exist and can be weaponized in favor of medical science. If customers complain, boycott, write letters to the editor, bring the story to the news, start social media pressure campaigns, protest, and make it into a public relations situation, then many businesses will, in fact, respond to pressure.
Employees who are put in harm’s way have the power to organize on the job. In fact, union efforts have already drastically increased in response to workers being forced into risky work situations with improper precautions in place. We should encourage those workers and stand in solidarity with them. We must back them up by following their leads, showing management that their customers support the safety demands of employees, and organizing info campaigns, pickets, and boycotts of those who still refuse.
And as for those places we may frequent that are under state control such as courthouses or public schools? Well yes, requiring masks still does make sense for those areas and the state is in charge of making and enforcing those rules, but we cannot trust them to always enforce those rules adequately or justly or even at all, as witnessed recently in the case of a Georgia student who was suspended for posting a photo of her high school hallway crowded with unmasked students to her Instagram account.
Between the support for the student and the backlash against the school, the student was unsuspended and the school is likely to institute better safety measures. But the fact that public schools are open at all during a pandemic when online schooling is an option is just one more reason to distrust the state. You’re much better off ditching public schools altogether and avoiding state properties whenever possible. Thankfully we are seeing an increase in people exercising school choice and opting for other, safer, alternatives.
So while market forces are far from perfect, and some businesses have even rolled back their mask requirements due to customer backlash, it is much easier to make it a PR nightmare for private businesses and force their hand than it is to get the police to shape up their act and enforce such mandates in any form that resembles actual justice. So stay home and/or socially distanced as much as possible, wear a mask when out in public, wash your hands, support union efforts, and shop at businesses that require masks, while also fighting against state-enforced mask laws and working to defund the police.