As states across the country have gradually pushed forward with reopening in recent weeks, protesters representing a small but apparently growing movement — especially within the Republican Party — have continued to push for it to go faster. And one very visible thing has somehow turned into a perceived political statement: wearing a mask.
A reporter at a Minnesota news station — one who happens to be an old college friend of mine — was even harassed this week for wearing a mask while covering these protests.
Across the border in North Dakota, though, GOP Gov. Doug Burgum on Friday offered a plea to stop the madness.
Burgum suggested the debate over masks was being needlessly politicized and that those who are bucking federal health officials’ guidance should rethink their posture.
“I would really love to see in North Dakota that we could just skip this thing that other parts of the nation are going through where they’re creating a divide — either it’s ideological or political or something — around masks versus no mask,” Burgum said. “This is a, I would say, senseless dividing line, and I would ask people to try to dial up your empathy and your understanding.”
The subtext of the remarks was pretty clear: This is a needless culture war.
Burgum then went on, getting emotional.
“If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support,” Burgum said, before his voice began breaking. “They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life who currently have covid, and they’re fighting.”
Burgum concluded his thought: “I would just love to see our state, as part of being North Dakota Smart, also be North Dakota Kind, North Dakota Empathetic.”
To be clear, the number of people protesting the wearing of masks is small. Scenes like the one in Minnesota are the exception, rather than the rule. But there are myriad images of people reemerging in society and, in doing so, declining to wear masks, even as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend them.
President Trump has conspicuously declined to wear a mask during his travels in recent weeks, even as those he was meeting with did so. He eventually donned one, but only for part of the time and away from his interactions with reporters. Trump has also stressed that the wearing of masks is voluntary, which it is. But critics have alleged he’s sending the wrong message about a very simple precaution — or even subtly promoting a culture war over masks.
A GOP governor on Friday seemed to sense that emerging culture war — one in which declining to wear masks is seen as some kind of statement, even as it could make it more difficult to enact the reopening that protesters are calling for. So Burgum offered a very personal and powerful plea to argue about other things.
And it’s important to note something else about that governor: He’s got one of the highest approval ratings in the country for his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, 80 percent.