Editor’s note: This piece by Jon Sanders first appeared at the American Institute for Economic Research.
A look of palpable relief crossed the plumber’s face. He had come to our house to replace our dishwasher. Before knocking on our door, he had hastily attached a cloth mask, what the politically astute call a “face covering.” The term differentiated it from the surgical masks they thought offered stronger protection against COVID-19 despite the packaging declaring they “will not provide any protection against COVID-19 (coronavirus) or other viruses or contaminants.”
My wife and I greeted him at the door, saw his face-cover fumbling, and quickly offered him reprieve. We know masks to be all show and misery, and we weren’t going to enforce such nonsense in our home. If he wanted to keep it, that was his choice, not our imposition.
But what about “My face mask protects you, your face mask protects me”? Ludicrous. We know where that mantra comes from: Very early COVID research focused on how to change Western culture about wearing masks. Imagine if Americans would be more complacent and compliant as autocrats ordered mask wearing, social distancing, and multiple (at least four) lockdowns.
As it turned out, our plumber suffered from emphysema and COPD. Not only would his mask have done us no favors, but also it would have caused him severe discomfort and worsened his health with anxiety, dizziness, headache, and possible bacterial infection. But at the time of his visit, it wasn’t the government forcing a mask on him; it was his employer.
Whenever we could, we let the servers, clerks, attendants, small business owners, and others we encountered in our mutually beneficial transactions know that they were welcome to doff the cloth. We wanted no part in the charade, either as participants or patrons. Furthermore, the spectacle of people smiling normally being catered to by people whose mouths and noses were covered like silenced servants struck us as offensive to the core.
It was bad enough in the early days of COVID lockdowns to treat people to the indignity of being declared “essential” or not. Then the mask orders began and with them an avalanche of absurdities, with the “actively eating and drinking” exception being one of the most risible. They stuck them on cooks sweating in hot kitchens. High school athletes gasped through them up and down the court. Greeters and receptionists had to try to welcome you with a muffled burble or frustrated gestures.
Worse than all that, however, were the repeated revelations that political leaders, the super-wealthy, elite celebrities, and a select few others enjoyed permanent exemption from coerced masking. Social media was filled with pictures of the mandaters and maskier-than-thous enjoying life as normal. They seemed like moralizing TV preachers caught with their pants down, except they gave no tearful mea culpas.
This behavior didn’t hail from hypocrisy, it stank of privilege. Hypocrisy was the point; it reinforced their higher social standing above the cloth-covered proles. You must comply because you’re subject to our rules; we, of course, are above all that.
Politics may be forcing those rules to fall — and something so antithetical to a free society (let alone Western civilization) should never be suffered to return. But what then? It’s clear our “elites” prefer they continue being imposed on us, so shouldn’t we still obey them?
No, of course not. So why should we then be complacent when our servers, clerks, cleaners, attendants, housekeeping staff, assistants, tellers, kitchen staff, and other public-facing helpers remain encased in face masks?
It simply won’t do. America doesn’t have a caste system. This country has its origins in people fleeing heavily striated, class-based societies the world over for a land where we are all recognized as equal creations under God. We tell other nations to give us their tired, their poor, their huddled masses yearning to breathe free. No way should we condone it when our leaders or our bosses forbid our tired and poor from huddling and breathing free.
We must demand an end to America’s dalliance with face mask feudalism. Smiling customers should likewise be greeted with smiles and distinguishable consonants and vowels. A “return to normal” requires abandoning all aspects of the “new normal” and asserting normal normal. At long last governments are dropping mask mandates. Holdout employers must do the same.
Jon Sanders is senior fellow of regulatory studies and research editor at the John Locke Foundation.