Nearly 40 years ago, while living in North Dakota, I dated a public health nurse. Because our first date went well, I decided to invite her to a nice dinner. When we arrived at the restaurant, there was a short wait, so we took a seat in the lounge.
Seated next to us were two loud, inebriated men. Soon, they stood up and stumbled toward the door with car keys in hand, grumbling about the long 250-mile drive ahead to Duluth, Minnesota.
My date jumped into action! She grabbed their keys and told them they were in no condition to drive anywhere, much less 250 miles. She shouted at the bartender to call the police. When the police arrived, they insisted the men get a motel for the night.
I’ll admit to being a bit surprised at the spontaneity of her action. There was no hesitation. Her response was ingrained and instinctive. I was so impressed with her social conscience that I soon asked her to marry me. Last July, we celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary.
I have thought about that incident many times over the years, especially now, during the pandemic. It is disheartening that a vocal minority in Wyoming is placing personal liberty over the common good of the public. Apparently what was instinctive for my wife is not instinctive for everyone.
And I am astonished that the Wyoming GOP’s Central Committee recently passed a resolution encouraging the governor to rescind all emergency public health orders. The resolution comes at a time when the pandemic is raging all over the state and nation. Do they have no social conscience?
Throughout the pandemic, there has been unending grumbling about personal rights. Some claim that a simple requirement to wear a mask in public would be an intrusion on their liberty. Others claim that the governor and state health officer have exceeded their authority, and that public health requirements are unconstitutional. I disagree!
I worked as a management consultant in Wyoming for 30 years. In 2004, when the threat of bioterrorism was looming, I completed a contract that required me to compile and analyze Wyoming statutes relating to a pandemic response. The project involved comparing existing statutes to recommendations developed by Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities. The resulting extensive report concluded that Wyoming statutes were (and presumably still are) mostly adequate and provide appropriate authority to the governor and the state health officer. This finding was consistent with the recommendations of Georgetown and Johns Hopkins universities … which emphasized the absolute necessity that someone have a high level of authority during an infectious disease outbreak.
Accusations of unconstitutionality at the national level have also been rebuffed. On July 27, a federal court in Florida declined to issue an injunction against a mask mandate. The court concluded: “no constitutional right is infringed by the mask ordinance’s mandate … and that the requirement to wear such a covering has a clear rational basis based on the protection of public health” and “constitutional rights and the ideals of limited government do not … allow (citizens) to wholly shirk their social obligation to their fellow Americans or to society as a whole. After all, we do not have a constitutional right to infect others.”
The laws are clear. Exceptional and necessary authority is granted to decision makers during a pandemic. Let’s hope there’ll be no misguided attempt to weaken these laws in the future.
If we are going to get this pandemic under control while awaiting a vaccine, more people are going to have to improve their social conscience.
Wyoming is often described as a small town with one long street. That vision of a friendly neighborhood is now in grave jeopardy. Certainly, it is not “friendly” to resist reasonable public health guidelines when your neighbor’s life may depend upon them.
To be truly friendly, the folks who live on that long street must be willing to temporarily forgo a few liberties in deference to the well being of their neighbors, especially their vulnerable neighbors. And if some of those folks are unwilling, our decision makers must take stronger action. They have the legal authority and moral responsibility to do so.