Opinion

America ends the pandemic as we began: stupidly

It probably is time for the transit mask mandate to end. Why couldn't we wait for scientists to say so?

America's COVID-19 pandemic ended in the manner we really all should have seen coming — that is, in the dumbest way possible.

Earlier this week, a 35-year-old Florida woman rated "not qualified" to be a federal judge by the American Bar Association determined that "wearing a mask cleans nothing," and thusly overruled the legal authority of all the scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mandate mask use on public transit, including in airports and on planes. This triggered a near-instantaneous bacchanalia of people across (and above) the country gleefully ripping off their face masks, finally liberated, as they were, from the dreaded reign of the KN95.

I don't say this is dumb because I'm some great mask apologist. In truth, I've been wearing mine very rarely as cases have dropped, and I've been emboldened by my triple-vaccination status. But that such a sweeping mandate could be lifted on no legitimate scientific grounds (really, sub-zero scientific grounds, since the judge apparently used a dubious 1944 definition of "sanitation" to make her case) is the cherry on top of this country's apparently inexhaustible ways to botch the response to the greatest public health crisis in generations.

It's not news at this point that mask use, and following the science more largely, have been dangerously politicized during the pandemic (even when mask wearing is repeatedly proven — nay, totally obvious — as a method for preventing the spread of a respiratory disease).

Still, it would have been nice to actually make it to May 3, the date through which the CDC had extended its mask mandate in order to "assess the potential impact the rise of cases has on severe disease, including hospitalizations and deaths, and health care system capacity." Is it so radical to want public health officials to dictate the time for the nation to relax on masks? Is it really too much to ask that this question not be settled by a single judge who dismissively says things like "[the mask] traps virus droplets" — like that isn't the whole point?

Apparently it is. Like everything in this pandemic so far, the move was driven by a political agenda and resulted in the further proliferation of wildly anti-science justifications. Inevitably, it was attended by "squeals of unbridled delight" from mask opponents, "which aren't so much a reflection of just how onerous the mask mandate has been but rather just how childish and selfish so much of the country has been in dealing with it," as Robin Givhan wrote for The Washington Post. Precisely. 

The Biden administration is currently debating appealing the decision, which is its own political can of worms. Because the White House apparently isn't seeking an emergency stay of the Florida ruling — the Justice Department statement seemed to say May 3 is the earliest the appeal would come — there's a scenario in which Americans might be asked to go back to masking on transit after weeks or months of not wearing them, which would definitely go over calmly and normally with our independent-thinking populace. 

In truth, we're far beyond the point of there being any good answer for how to wind down pandemic protections. It's probably unrealistic of me to argue wistfully that making a science-backed decision would have made a difference, in sheer principle, at all. But as dumb and frustrating as this supposed conclusion to our national nightmare may be, never underestimate the ability for America to somehow get even dumber.

That is to say: The pandemic really isn't over just because we declare it is. Our capacity for terrible decision-making may only be getting started.

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