Andru Volinsky: No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service

For the Monitor
Published: 5/20/2020 6:00:11 AM

The origin of the phrase “No shirt, no shoes, no service” is likely a dubious response to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it has become separated from its discriminatory purpose. This phrase can now be pressed into service during the COVID-19 crisis with a modest change: Add a requirement for a mask.

The most powerful response to the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a simple facial covering or a mask. The best way to enforce the wearing of masks is to require businesses that open during the crisis to refuse to serve members of the public who do not wear a mask.

As Gov. Chris Sununu has chosen to open our malls, with hordes of Massachusetts shoppers coming from areas of concentrated contagion, we need to be even more careful to limit the spread of the virus. It is the cost of doing business. No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.

I recently hosted a Zoom town hall with public health experts Nora Traviss, an environmental health professor at Keene State College, and Richard DiPentima, former New Hampshire chief of communicable diseases. They shared that we can shut down the virus if four out of five people wear masks. This works because a mask protects others from the tiny droplets each of us emit when we cough, sneeze or even laugh. As governor, I would ask businesses to join us in enforcing this basic public health requirement.

Many Granite Staters have shared fearful accounts of witnessing unmasked employees and customers when they are shopping for necessities. A University of Washington model just increased its projections for New Hampshire COVID deaths. Seven states have now required masks for customers and workers in businesses, including Maryland, which is led by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. This isn’t a partisan issue. Localities in red, blue, and purple states alike are increasingly requiring customers to wear masks. As governor, I would not hesitate to require that masks be worn by all workers and customers alike in businesses that wish to open, including malls, restaurants, grocery stores and liquor stores.

Some business lobbyists in our state are arguing for the Mitch McConnell/ Donald Trump “corporate immunity” scheme to absolve large corporations of all responsibility to prevent exposing workers or customers to coronavirus. And unfortunately, Sununu has signaled he is sympathetic to this scheme. This is a wrongheaded and dangerous move that could create disincentives for basic health and safety measures. We must recognize that if public health is truly our top priority, as it should be, mask-wearing is a simple and reasonable requirement to keep businesses operating in a safe, responsible, and sustainable manner. Requiring workers and customers to wear masks should be, simply, the cost of doing businesses in a pandemic.

Retail workers are being asked to endanger their lives so that shopping malls can reopen. I don’t agree with this decision, but the least we can do is make the retail stores as safe as possible. It is also the state’s responsibility to make masks freely available at the point of entry to our stores. If customers forget their masks, we should help them. If they refuse to wear a mask, they should be refused entry. While we’re at it, we should implement flexible scheduling in all of our workplaces to improve social distancing.

Finally, it is time for the governor to speak out against the “ReOpen NH” rallies. While responsible citizens are social distancing and wearing masks, these protesters – some of whom are reportedly paid – flout all community norms. How would these protesters have reacted when asked to plant liberty gardens for the war effort? Would these sunshine patriots have slunk away from their responsibilities in wartime England when asked to darken their windows during air raids? The ReOpen protesters are not patriots at all. Patriots don’t needlessly endanger their neighbors. They fight to protect them. It is long past time our elected leaders publicly proclaimed this simple truth.

It would be a great shame to suffer a single preventable death for failure to wear a mask or for failure to call out protesters who needlessly endanger us all. Do the right thing.

Save lives.

(Andru Volinsky of Concord is an executive councilor for District 2 and a Democratic candidate for governor.)

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