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If you can punish a teenage girl for spaghetti straps, you can enforce a mask mandate

A crowded hallway at North Paulding High School in Georgia, where “wearing a mask is a personal choice,” according to the superintendent. (AP)

Call it karma or science (it’s science), but over the weekend news broke that nine people, both students and staff, had tested positive for the coronavirus at North Paulding High School. This is the Georgia school made notorious last week by a photo of a hallway swarming with shoulder-to-shoulder unmasked students. It’s where the girl who posted that photo online was initially suspended for her whistleblowing, and where the superintendent claimed, “wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them.” It is also the place where irony died, because the school had proved it did have at least one tool — suspension — for dealing with students it believed were in the wrong.

North Paulding has temporarily closed.

But for when they return to the classroom, here are some additional notes for school systems and other ruling bodies on how to enforce mandates:

Punish mask noncompliance the way many schools have for decades wrongly punished teenage girls for spaghetti straps, shorter skirts and scooped necklines (all prohibited in North Paulding’s dress code), yanking those girls out of class for “distracting” their fellow classmates with scandalous body parts like knee caps.

You know what is truly a distraction? Being yanked out of class while you’re just trying to learn trigonometry. Hearing that your male classmates’ learning experience is your responsibility. Fearing that a visible bra strap, or the “personal choice” of your clothing will get you called a slut.

But I digress. North Paulding’s handbook also says the administration “reserves the right to alter the dress code for special occasions,” and as this pandemic is pretty special, I would advise school districts to picture a face without a mask as if it’s a girl without sleeves, and proceed accordingly.

For government officials:

Legislate the “personal choice” of mask noncompliance the way you have for decades tried to legislate women over their own deeply personal decisions.

When states first began lifting coronavirus lockdown measures in the summer, tensions around face masks had been mounting since the CDC first recommended them. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

After refusing to wear a mask or to instruct his staff to work remotely, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) tested positive for the coronavirus. He then tweeted that he would be taking hydroxychloroquine, despite top infectious-disease specialists, including Anthony S. Fauci, noting that the anti-malarial drug has not been proved an effective treatment. “It is what was decided as the best course of action between my doctor and me — not by government bureaucrats,” Gohmert wrote.

Was he plagiarizing Busy Philipps? Because last year at a hearing on abortion, the actor and activist told Gohmert, “I don’t believe that a politician’s place is to decide what’s best for a woman. It’s a choice between a woman and her doctor.”

Gohmert, who is antiabortion, was not persuaded then. He has repeatedly shown he feels it is exactly his business, as a government bureaucrat, to regulate individuals’ conversations with their doctors. At a House hearing he once said women should carry a brain-dead fetus to term.

In a funhouse-mirror situation, the de facto slogan of the anti-mask crowd has become “My body, my choice,” the chant originally created by women in the abortion rights movement. In that context, the goal was to argue that a woman’s decisions about her health, her family, her morals and her soul were up to her, possibly in consultation with her doctor, her partner or her pastor.

You might believe that abortion is murder, but you cannot say that it is contagious and airborne, something you can catch or transmit unknowingly to others. You cannot argue that, upon choosing to have an abortion, a pregnant person walks into a grocery store and infects 50 other innocent shoppers with abortion. As clever and self-righteous as anti-maskers may believe themselves to be, public health concerns are completely different from individual medical procedures.

But if that’s the comparison that anti-mask folks want to make — fine. Prepare to be judged and harangued the way women are for seeking abortions. And prepare to deserve it, because unlike what goes on inside a Planned Parenthood clinic, public health actually is the business of the public.

We could keep going.

Pretend an unmasked face is a woman trying to obtain the birth control that her doctor has prescribed but her employer disavows. You know what to do: Find your inner bureaucrat and go to town. Pretend an unmasked face is a member of the LGBTQ community asking for the same treatment and rights as the rest of the population; you will surely then find a way to enforce some mandates.

I don’t think this is about the ability to enforce mandates. Schools, legislators and workplaces have all found ways to enforce mandates on women’s bodies, or gender nonconforming bodies, for years. This is about a sickness that is far more pervasive than the coronavirus: the belief that one’s comfort is more important than someone else’s life. The stubborn resistance to science for reasons that often boil down to, “I don’t wanna.” The refusal to acknowledge that living in a functioning society sometimes means sacrificing a tiny smidgen of personal liberty for the well-being of the group — and that there are circumstances exceeding the boundaries of taste and discretion, where those sacrifices should be mandated: The presence of a deadly virus in the halls of a school is a better reason to enforce a dress code than the presence of bare shoulders.

We could have been done with this pandemic. We still could be done with this pandemic, pretty much whenever “we” want to. Like many other nations in the world, we could spend several weeks hunkering down, truly loving our neighbors as ourselves, with the government financial support necessary to make that hunkering possible.

But unfortunately — for all of us — it turns out that ending the pandemic is not an individual choice.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit