Governor’s mandate isn’t the reason to wear a mask

Published 7:52 pm Tuesday, June 9, 2020

short rows headerAs Isle of Wight and Smithfield began to reopen along with the rest of Virginia this past week, it was reassuring to see the fairly broad use of masks and social distancing by our neighbors. And yet, the number of people not wearing masks was also noteworthy.


There has been an increasingly rancorous debate over what should and what should not be the norms in society as we begin to come out of our officially sanctioned but largely self-imposed reclusiveness. Nowhere is that debate more focused than on wearing masks.

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The debate has been shaped, in part, on the legality of gubernatorial orders. Gov. Ralph Northam has operated under Virginia Code sections that address statewide emergencies. Critics of the governor say he has gone too far, that he has neither the statutory nor the constitutional authority for some of his mandates.

I have always tended to be a limited government person, as are a majority of Virginians. I particularly am sensitive to individual rights. Therefore, I fully understand the questions raised about Northam’s COVID-19 mandates, including what businesses were declared “essential,” as well as the masks-in-public mandate now in effect. The debate over what businesses are essential pretty much resolved itself as Phase 2 began, since most all businesses are now allowed some flexibility to operate.

The mask debate continues and has become far more political. Is there authority in the State Code or Constitution to allow Northam to require Virginians to wear face covering when they are in public places? I suspect that authority is at best questionable, and I suspect that Gov. Northam and his advisors also have questions about legality. It was telling that he pointedly avoided citing specific methods of enforcement or ramifications that may result from Virginians who insist on not wearing masks.

I also feel, however, that the governor’s mandate is based on the best judgment of virtually all infectious disease professionals in the world, the outlying opinion of a local doctor published on this page a week ago notwithstanding.

Let’s assume, for the sake of the argument, that there is no legal authority to mandate wearing masks in public. That does not change the need to wear them. Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began to manifest itself, medical experts — including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, one of the nation’s most respected professionals — have consistently said that by wearing a mask in public, we are not protecting ourselves, but we are protecting those fellow human beings we come into contact with.

The reason is simple. The number of people who are “carriers” of the virus but have no symptoms is unknown, but probably huge. Each carrier, by simply talking to someone else, emits particles that contain the virus. Each person standing in close proximity to that person can inhale those particles. It sounds gross, and it is. It’s also deadly, as we have seen in outbreaks across the country where people gathered both indoors and out. In short, people who wear masks are showing respect and concern for the people they encounter. Those who don’t wear masks may still respect their neighbors, but they are not exhibiting that respect in public.

During the protests that have dominated our nation for the past two weeks, it has been encouraging to see the large percentage of people who have chosen to wear a face mask, and professionals are hoping that sense of responsibility will manifest itself in holding down coronavirus outbreaks associated with the marches.

We all have lapses in our behavior. I would imagine that Gov. Ralph Northam is still kicking himself for being caught without a mask on when he toured the Virginia Beach oceanfront several weekends ago. He should be. To his credit, he did acknowledge the stupidity of having done so, but he reinforced the mask opposition in that one thoughtless moment.

So, is the mask mandate legal? I don’t think it matters. In the final analysis, our decision to wear a mask or not will be based on our mutual respect for each other, rather than the law.

And a final thought. When you encounter a store clerk or any other person wearing a mask, say “thank you” or at least offer a smile. When you come across people not wearing them, on the other hand, you might want to give them a wide berth. You have no idea whether they’re breathing something that you don’t want.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is