Opinion: Who is that masked man? The governor of Georgia

050520 Albany: Gov. Brian Kemp wears a mask and urged fellow citizens to do the same after touring the temporary medical pod that has been placed at the Phoebe North Campus of Phoebe Putney Health System on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Albany. The pod at Phoebe North arrived on April 15 and is scheduled to begin operations on Wednesday, May 6, housing 24 beds to treat non-critical COVID-19 patients. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Last Tuesday, on a rare trip out of the White House, President Donald Trump toured a Honeywell plant in Arizona that makes N-95 masks, a key piece of survival equipment during this pandemic. Especially for health care workers.

The president himself chose not to wear a mask. The Honeywell executives in his presence, who no doubt knew better, followed his example. Peer pressure is like that.

On that very same day, Gov. Brian Kemp toured Albany, the south Georgia hot spot with the highest coronavirus death rate in the nation. He wore a face mask, as did everyone around him. The governor even posed for photographs, with his mask still stretching from ear to ear.

Two days later, to demonstrate that his fashion sense wasn’t confined to pandemic war zones, Kemp visited an Atlanta barber to have his ears lowered. The barber wore a mask.

So did the governor, according to the photo that arrived via Twitter. And good on him. Possibly he learned something from Vice President Mike Pence, who toured the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota without a mask – but was ultimately forced to confess that he'd been wrong in doing so.

President Donald Trump in Arizona on Tuesday/CNBC

You can be a science skeptic and throw doubt at most of the data rushing your way this spring, or you can argue that personal responsibility is the key to reopening the economy. But in this climate, you can’t do both.

Wearing a face mask in close public spaces is recommended but not mandatory in Georgia, as it is in some other states. Persuasion is necessary. Some might denigrate it as “virtue signaling,” but we once called it leading by example.

A governor showing us how it’s done won’t be enough. Without the force of law, a resort to property rights – with proprietors denying entry to unmasked consumers, as some major grocery chains and other retail outlets have begun doing – will probably have more impact.

Even so, I give Kemp kudos on two counts. First, the wearing of masks is morphing into an unnecessary and unhealthy political test in which your face is the bumper sticker.

In Florida, the city of Miami Beach again closed off its beaches to the public after park rangers gave 7,329 verbal warnings to those without the required face covers last weekend. The city of Stillwater, Okla., revoked a face mask order applying to stores and restaurants after employees were harassed and threatened.

A security guard in a Family Dollar store in Michigan was shot and killed when he tried to enforce the state’s face-mask order.

Last week, Bert Brantley, the chief operating officer for the state Department of Economic Development, was grocery shopping in Henry County, wearing a cloth face mask that a member of his tennis team had just made for him.

“There I am in Publix, and we’re following the one-way directions on the floor, and a sneeze came on,” he said. That convinced him. His mask will stay on.

“I also wear a seat belt when driving,” he later posted on Facebook. “Not sure why this is even an issue.”

Among those who took issue with Brantley's post was Tim Bryant, a conservative talk host on WGAU (1340 AM) in Athens, who repeated his objections on the radio Thursday. Bryant pointed to early government warnings that played down the effectiveness of masks – most of which were intended to avoid shortages of quality face protection needed by hospital workers and other frontline personnel.

“Who the hell do you see in Kroger walking around with an N-95? People are walking around with bandannas tied around their mouths. What do they think they’re accomplishing — besides making themselves feel better about themselves and the virtue signal their sending to me, the non-mask wearer?” Bryant said. “You see me in your store wearing a mask, assume that I’m in there to rob the place.”

Let us be clear. An N-95 and similar, advanced face coverings are meant to prevent microbes on the outside from entering the person wearing the mask. The object of a cloth mask, homemade or otherwise, is to keep the evil microbes that you host – even though you might not be aware of them — from jumping to the human being closest to you.

050520 Albany: Members of the Georgia Army National Guard and Georgia Air National Guard present Gov. Brian Kemp with a Covengers Albany COVID-19 Response Team shirt while he tours the temporary medical pod that has been placed at the Phoebe North Campus of Phoebe Putney Health System on Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Albany. The pod at Phoebe North arrived on April 15 and is scheduled to begin operations on Wednesday, May 6, housing 24 beds to treat non-critical COVID-19 patients. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Kemp’s example is an antidote to this kind of skepticism on the Republican side. But it exists on the other, too. DeKalb County is halfway through its effort to distribute face coverings to 10,000 residents.

“In neighborhoods that we’re targeting, it’s like you’re giving someone gold,” DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said. “We say ‘wear masks,’ but what we don’t understand is that, in some neighborhoods, where would you buy the mask, and where would you buy the sanitizer? They don’t sell them at Family Dollar. And they don’t sell them at the local convenience store.”

Young African-Americans are the face-mask skeptics he’s trying to reach. Thurmond has asked the rapper and activist Killer Mike to cut some public service announcements that will air on radio stations aimed at black audiences throughout metro Atlanta.

There’s another reason I’m glad to see Governor Kemp don a mask.

The governor took a great deal of heat two weeks ago, when he allowed the reopening of many shuttered Georgia businesses – the kind that specialize in human-to-human contact. Many thought he acted too hastily, and still do.

But that ship has sailed, and now we must decide the balance to be struck between additional lives lost to the pandemic – for everyone agrees that this will happen — and commerce regained.

Purists will say that the search for this balance has always been with us in some form, and perhaps they’re right. But rarely has the calculation been so public and deliberate.

We know who will most likely bear the burden of reopening Georgia’s economy. The elderly and infirm, to begin with. But also the low-wage earners who can’t afford to continue a shelter-in-place lifestyle – the stockers of grocery shelves, the retail cashiers, daycare workers and many, many more. A racial disparity that is already pronounced is likely to grow even larger.

So should you go out, if you must go out, and you find yourself face-to-face with that grocery worker at the register, your mask becomes more than an act of public health. It’s a sign of respect for those who are putting themselves at risk for your benefit, for those whose world may be far more dangerous than yours.

Again, thanks for setting the example, Governor Kemp.

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