Editorial: As 2021 ends, debate over mask wearing grinds on

Confusion about new mask wearing measures to combat rising COVID-19 cases was rampant this week, with Gov. Kathy Hochul saying it will be up to individual counties to enforce the new mandate.

One evening this week, shoppers at a Southold grocery store were told by an employee to put on masks as required by the governor’s order. One shopper complied; the other said he thought it was voluntary and depended on vaccination status. Neither seemed to know what was required.

The mandate took effect Monday. It requires masks in all indoor public places unless those venues have a vaccine requirement in place. 

On Monday, Ms. Hochul said enforcement is up to each county. Incoming Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman said he will not enforce the mandate. However, the outgoing Nassau executive, Laura Curran, said the mandate will not be “actively” enforced but that officials will respond to complaints about violations, Newsday reported.

That seems very confusing — it won’t be enforced but police will respond to violations? 

As we reported in Thursday’s newspapers, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone did not respond to a question about what the county will do. However, News12 reported that a Bellone spokesperson had this explanation: “As we have done in the past, our enforcement will be, first and foremost, centered around educating local businesses and residents about the latest information and guidance.”

We guess that means it won’t be actively enforced beyond what we saw in the Southold grocery store in which an employee simply asked two customers to comply. Not sure what would have happened if one or both refused but kept on shopping.

It’s clear that it’s simply up to individuals to decide that wearing a mask is the right thing to do, however inconvenient it may be for the brief time inside a store. It’s not worth it for store employees to engage in confrontation with every customer who argues about their freedom.

The mandate — if it can be called that — will remain in effect until Jan. 15 of next year, just a month away. Certainly the last few months have been a roller coaster ride in terms of COVID news, with positivity rates falling and rising again, and then the new omicron variant complicating the issue even further. It seems unlikely there will be any good news with COVID a month from now.

Partisan politics continue to drive the COVID narrative. The GOP’s presumptive candidate for governor, Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), continues to pounce on mask mandates at either the state or federal level as violating people’s “medical freedom.” He doesn’t speak about personal responsibility.

Meanwhile in just a few months we will have reached the two-year mark since COVID-19 burst on the scene, with then-president Trump saying it would go away by spring while telling journalist Bob Woodward it was deadly. 

COVID-19 deaths are approaching 800,000, with The New York Times reporting this week that “Seventy-five percent of people who have died of the virus in the United States — or about 600,000 of the nearly 800,000 who have perished so far — have been 65 or older. One in 100 older Americans has died from the virus. For people younger than 65, that ratio is closer to 1 in 1,400.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, the best way to address it would have been a nationwide mandated mask policy. Then, when the vaccine was rolled out, the best answer was for shots to be required. But that was asking too much of millions of Americans who otherwise comply with seatbelt rules and have required smoke detectors in their homes and children vaccinated for measles but find this vaccine a violation of their “freedoms.”

Sadly, partisan politics and debates over individual freedoms got in the way of America beating this pandemic, and the death toll mounted. And as 2021 nears the end, that’s where we still are.