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Opinion Youngkin’s illogic on masks

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) in Richmond on Jan. 15. (Steve Helber/AP)

In issuing an executive order banning mask mandates in Virginia public schools, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin said he was standing up for parents and their right to decide what’s best for their kids. In fact, he was standing squarely against the large majority of Virginians, including parents, who support mask mandates in schools for their own children and for others.

The right response to Mr. Youngkin’s order is resolute resistance by the state’s school districts, especially in regions where the virus is running rampant — which is most places these days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) strongly recommend continued mask-wearing for children in schools, a stance that Virginia’s own chapter of the AAP reiterated in response to Mr. Youngkin’s order. They are the health experts; they should be heeded by responsible school officials.

Mr. Youngkin, who issued the order upon being inaugurated on Saturday, has framed his decision as promoting liberty. What nonsense. Virginia law requires that children under the age of 18 be buckled up when they are in moving vehicles; parents are legally liable if they are not. There is no exemption to that rule based on individual “liberty”; it is grounded in personal safety and public health, just as mask mandates are.

By his action, what the governor really promotes is the virus, and its chances of even more virulent transmission. He does so as the omicron variant spreads, driving up cases and hospitalizations across the nation and the commonwealth.

It is true that children are less likely than adults to become severely ill from contracting the coronavirus, or to be hospitalized or die. It is also the case that some 8.5 million American children have tested positive for the virus in the past two years, and nearly 11 percent of those cases were added in the last week of December and the first week of January, according to tracking data from the AAP. Each week, children represent roughly some 17 percent of new cases; since the start of September, 3.4 million kids have tested positive.

Those are huge numbers. They mean that even if children are less likely than adults to transmit the virus to other adults in a school setting, as data suggest, even a small rate of child-to-adult transmission will yield many new adult cases. Some of those adults will be especially vulnerable owing to preexisting health conditions. Some of them will get very sick; and some are likely to die — all in the name of Mr. Youngkin’s warped idea of personal liberty.

By his order, Mr. Youngkin is catering to a Trumpist minority of Virginians. More than 70 percent of Virginians support the K-12 school mask mandate issued by the state health commissioner in August. And that was at a time when covid-19 transmission was a fraction of its current level.

In attempting to ban mask mandates in schools, Mr. Youngkin is emulating the Republican governors of Texas and Florida, who have faced lengthy court fights to enforce their will. That’s a mistake in a moderate state such as Virginia, whose record in combating the coronavirus has been strong relative to other states — until now.

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