Recall with me a time when Americans finally realized the dangers of cigarette smoking and banned it inside public buildings. Smokers were required to leave a building and go outside, sometimes in awful weather, to indulge their habit. Non-smokers celebrated, and everyone breathed easier. Lung cancer and other diseases caused by smoking declined, and a new norm prevailed.
Smokers protested at first, of course. They complained that their freedoms were being taken away. Non-smokers argued back, saying, “Your freedom to smoke near me stops at my nose.”
I am reminded of this as we witness angry crowds protesting the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on their lives. Businesses are forced to close and lay off employees. Jobs are lost, and people are becoming desperate. No one has money to spend, so the economy, both locally and nationally, grinds to a halt.
This is intolerable to those who gather at city halls to protest. Reopen the businesses, the restaurants, bars, schools, houses of worship, barbershops and beauty parlors, they argue. Let us work again, earn and spend money, mingle with others. Reboot the economy.
Spread the virus.
Just how serious is this pandemic? As I write this, this toxic virus has infected 828,000 Americans, more than the population of Seattle. It has caused the deaths of 45,373, a group equal to the population of San Luis Obispo, California. In my state of North Carolina, 6,921 have become infected with the virus, and 213 have died. Mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, young adults, children, suddenly dead. Gone from our lives forever.
Desperate to slow the spread of this plague, we stay home. We wear face masks, wash our hands thoroughly and often, avoid touching our faces, disinfect surfaces we touch. We mourn our newly dead. We pray for an end to it.
Most of us do, but not all. Some choose to gather closely together, defying the advice of medical experts, to complain, to blame others, to deny the terrible reality of the escalating toll of deaths and infections, to risk infecting themselves.
To share infections with the rest of us.
I believe strongly in peaceful protests. Our democracy supports and encourages it. When does it become dangerous? When your germs reach me. Will our face masks save us from protests?