Let’s put all politicized national controversies regarding COVID-19 aside for a moment. Let’s instead look locally, and simply consider the lives of two citizens and their impact on the city of Milton.
First, let us mourn and pay tribute to beloved Milton High School track and field coach Joe Austin, who passed away on Sunday night after an extended battle with coronavirus.
Austin had coached for more than a decade in Santa Rosa County. He was known as a “gentle giant” with a sunny sense of humor who had already earned the love and admiration of countless student athletes throughout his young and promising career.
Ask any of those students, parents or educators whose lives he touched: Coach Joe Austin was stolen from us far too soon.
Now let us consider the words and actions of Milton City Councilwoman Sharon Holley, who has used her position of elected office to publicly imply that the same virus that killed Coach Austin is a hoax. She has speculated that the virus is a “political movement” while scoffing at pleas from physicians in Santa Rosa County for the most basic of public safety measures — wearing a mask in public spaces.
Which of these better resembles a hoax? The tragic death of Coach Austin? Or the purported public stewardship of Councilwoman Holley?
What’s confounding is that even as we are experiencing the undeniable, heart wrenching pain of losing friends and loved ones to this virus, that somehow, delusional, politicized lies about COVID-19 continue to persist in dark and inexplicable pockets of our communities.
It’s about “freedom,” some say. It’s about “rights” and “liberty.”
Nonsense. Cut the melodrama. Something as simple as wearing a mask in public spaces is not an assault on anybody’s freedom. It’s simply an inconvenience.
And more importantly, it’s arguably the most mild inconvenience that has ever been asked of American citizens. Certainly, Americans were inconvenienced when they were asked to ration food and supplies during WWII. And without a doubt, many young Americans were inconvenienced again when they were drafted to go to war in Vietnam.
Being asked by medical directors and local governments to simply wear a cloth mask in public is hardly a price that’s too great to pay for average Americans. And if it is, then this country has stooped to a level of ignorant selfishness that’s immeasurably sad.
Yet look what’s happening right here at home.
When an Escambia County Commissioner uses Facebook to ask national anti-mask conspiracy theorists to bombard local government offices with complaints, something about us is broken.
When the city of Pensacola has to spend staff hours and taxpayer dollars sifting through accusations about doctors lying and science being fake, we have problems beyond the pandemic.
And when a beloved local coach dies from a disease that elected officials in his own community refuse to acknowledge, COVID-19 isn’t the only source of our sickness.
Earlier in July, Escambia commissioners were too paralyzed by COVID-19 paranoia to even consider a basic mask directive for the county. You know what they did instead? They spent $250,000 on a peppy ad campaign to encourage residents to “mask up.”
At the same time, employees at county offices also were not being required to wear masks, which contributed to numerous COVID-19 infections among county employees — medical expenses taxpayers ultimately foot the bill for.
This isn’t just bad public health policy. It’s foolish fiscal policy, as well.
Escambia commissioners will have an opportunity to consider a countywide mask mandate next week.
It shouldn’t require some great feat of leadership for public officials to issue basic mask policies that private companies such as Walmart have determined are in the best interests of their employees and customers.
But in this moment, in the face of widespread toxicity and incessant conspiracy theories, elected officials also have a moral obligation to speak up for science. Commissioners need to condemn paranoid nonsense. Council members need to defend the advice and expertise of doctors.
Responsible public officials need to make a vocal stand for reason, reality and fundamental public safety. Those basic principles are valued by the vast majority of citizens — and beneficial even to the vociferous few who trash them.