Much as we want it to be, the novel coronavirus is not done with us. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s county-by-county COVID map still lists the Berkshires’ transmission rate as high. This is cause for caution, not panic — and it demands that we let levelheadedness, decency and evidence-based approaches prevail while resisting the urge to instead tear apart at the seams amid an overly politicized and still dangerous pandemic.
Unfortunately, many of our local communities have seen far more of the latter than we would hope. For example, a recent Adams Board of Health meeting got unnecessarily heated after the panel’s members proposed an indoor masking directive in light of local COVID case trends outpacing the already-high county rate.
Some attendees shouted and jeered at the health board members. Others suggested they would stop paying their property taxes in protest. At least one attendee openly flouted the Town Hall’s masking rules while carrying a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag.
There is always going to be disagreement and perhaps even contention over any decisions of governance, whether it’s confronting a pandemic or anything else. Yet as the Adams Health Board chairman pointed out, in this case the directive the panel was considering was not even an enforceable restriction but essentially local public health guidance and recommendation.
“This is not a mandate. It’s not a regulation. It’s a call to action,” said Chairman David Rhoads, chair of the Adams Board of Health, said at the early afternoon meeting Thursday. “We are asking people to use their sense of community and willingness to basically pick up those protocols that stopped the virus last winter.”
Still, even if it were an enforceable mandate, it wouldn’t justify derailing a public meeting. Exercising one’s right to be heard is not an excuse for hurling verbal abuse at local officials trying to do their jobs in an unprecedented public health crisis. It is disorder that runs dangerously close to what has been described as “mobocracy,” a true threat to our democracy.
And unfortunately, there has been plenty of disorder in the national response to COVID-19 over the last year and a half, much of it because it has been shamelessly politicized from the beginning. The Trump administration played a large part in this by way of turning the battle against a viral enemy into a culture war in an effort to obscure its poor initial pandemic response, but citizens and politicians from across the partisan spectrum are not immune from the temptation to inject needless polarization into all things COVID. (It certainly didn’t help that even nonpartisan institutions like the CDC contributed to confusion early on with sometimes conflicting recommendations.)
At the Adams Health Board meeting, we saw that clearly when residents were threatening to withhold property tax payments over the fact that local officials were merely considering advising people to mask indoors as cases trend upward. Sometimes the vector is reversed, though, with officials turning the temperate up instead of down.
That happened at a Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee meeting when a citizen who wanted to register his displeasure with school masking policy was summarily blocked from addressing the public, which then snowballed into a controversial community issue that refracted far beyond the meeting — presumably the opposite of what the School Committee intended. Meanwhile, members of the Tri-Town Health Department serving Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge sent a letter to the editor that ran in Friday’s Eagle in which the authors compared citizens who downplay the severity of COVID to wartime traitors.
When wading into debate or community conversation about COVID regulations and best practices, the question that officials, residents and everybody in between should ask themselves is simply this: Am I turning the temperature up or down on an issue that is unfortunately already deeply polarizing? If we can’t bring ourselves to ask that question and let its answer inform our actions and community decision-making, then the novel coronavirus is not our only big problem.
In many ways, municipal health authorities are outgunned here. Similar directives to the one weighed by the Adams Board of Health have been issued elsewhere in the Berkshires, such as Richmond, where the Board of Health chairman echoed his Adams counterpart: “It’s not a mandate because we lack enforcement ability. We simply want to get the message out ... it’s serious business.”
Local health authorities should communicate clearly as possible about what just what the directives in question are, because to many residents the term “directive” might colloquially come off sounding like a mandate when there actually isn’t one — again, no need to stir the pot when we don’t have to.
The troubling trends in Berkshire COVID cases certainly do warrant caution and demand that we don’t let our defenses down even as we are all literally sick and tired of this pandemic. Be smart: wash your hands, socially distance when possible, mask up where appropriate in public indoor spaces and be particularly careful if you or a loved one are more vulnerable because of comorbidities or immunocompromise. If you haven’t been vaccinated, please consider putting aside your objections to vaccination to protect yourself, your neighbors and your country.
Another troubling trend that demands attention are the COVID-accelerated shortcomings in how we talk to each other as Americans and as neighbors. We must protect our own individual immune systems as well as our communities’ — and being vicious or condescending with each other isn’t doing that. Half-truths, whole lies and conspiracy theories have permeated an alarming fraction of Americans’ perception of this public health crisis, which poisons the discourse far too much. On the other side, those tasked with dispelling baseless and unevidenced rumors about vaccines and the virus have a hard line to walk. Yes, it is necessary to proactively dismiss the misinformation and disinformation that swirls around this issue, but without entirely dismissing the people one is trying to convince, lest we risk calcifying even more opposition to common-sense methods to curb COVID like masking and vaccination.
It would be much better if state authorities and the Baker administration stepped up to take some of the burden off of local health boards by instituting a set of uniform rules with objective standards, instead of a hodge-podge of local action, especially since the CDC currently considers every county in the commonwealth to be high transmission. And while it’s encouraging to hear Gov. Charlie Baker at least allude to exploring other states’ vaccine verification options, more concrete steps would be better. Vaccine passports in Massachusetts could give local governments and businesses alike a powerful tool to curb transmission and hopefully incentivize vaccination among some of the hesitant.
Short of that, though, we can’t let COVID continue to infect our collective sense of civility and community. That it appears to be doing so in meetings across the county is worrisome in and of itself, to say nothing of the need to mitigate an invisible foe that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and is still very much with us. Against a viral pandemic, we are all of us truly in this together. Let’s act like it.