On Tuesday, I broke out a new face mask I’d just purchased at a local pharmacy. The mask is sky blue and, on the left side, bears the South Dakota state logo. In a way, that makes it a peculiar device, given the state of our state COVID-wise and our governor’s well-publicized ambivalence about face coverings. Thus, I tended to think of myself as “the man in the ironic mask” when I wore it.
Unfortunately (and with apologies to Alexandre Dumas), none of that is a joke.
But, I’ve heard, “South Dakotans don’t really seem to care …”
At least, that’s the perception I’ve been picking up from some national media and others whose observations occasionally flit across my radar. They apparently look upon us with an unpleasant mix of scorn and pity, dismissing us as foolish Red Staters who are proudly unconcerned about the coronavirus at (and inside) our door and who have no use for face masks, social distancing or other precautions that hinder our freedom. So, it’s concluded, the surge in cases and deaths here is a whirlwind we brought upon ourselves.
The truth is a little less interesting and more complicated.
While there are people here who do live up to at least some of those perceptions, many South Dakotans actually do wear masks, practice social distancing and follow other safety protocols. And some of us shake our heads, too, at those who don’t. (Sometimes, when we run a photo in the newspaper of a group of people who aren’t wearing masks or distancing, we’ll hear a couple complaints, which is actually a good thing.)
Masks are — by their overt, plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face nature — a conspicuous point of attention and contention. Some people see them as instruments of oppression and submission, while still others may feel uncomfortable or self-conscious about strapping those things across our faces.
I was initially in that latter group when all this started.
Earlier this year, B.C. — Before COVID — I was in a doctor’s office when a woman came in wearing one of those light blue disposable masks that I’ve seen thousands of times since. I’m not sure why she was wearing it, but for whatever reason, I remember being struck by this sight, which I assumed was due to some underlying health issue. She was the only person in the office wearing a mask.
But then COVID-19 arrived and things like face masks suddenly became essential tools. So, I hesitantly chose to wear one to protect myself and others. The first face covering I wore was a bandana, wrapped gingerly with some rubber bands, a contraption that felt fragile and uncomfortable. I wore it on a grocery run, where I felt anxiously conspicuous because it appeared that a majority of the customers and employees weren’t taking the same precaution.
Now, however, I have a lot of masks that I wear all the time. I rotate them, wash them and spray them down with my new best friend, hydrogen peroxide. I have masks that are different colors, a couple of USD masks and masks featuring various other logos, including my unlikely South Dakota covering. What was once an uncommon sight to see on someone else is now something I don every single day. And the more I wear them, the less I think about them. It’s my new normal.
I’m not alone in this. Like I said, a lot of people here wear masks frequently. They are old and young; they are Republicans and Democrats and independents. When I go to stores now, I believe I see far more people than not also wearing masks. And when we gather in a check-out line, we space six feet apart, practically out of instinct. And hand sanitizer is everywhere.
So, the currently popular image of people here ignoring or defying health guidelines is somewhat misleading.
Yes, there are South Dakotans who refuse to wear masks, who still believe the pandemic is all a hoax or it’s overblown, who are unafraid to go to bars or restaurants, or mix in crowds — when they can find one.
But I’m always hopeful that they’ll learn.
I think more and more of them are.
It might be real helpful, of course, if our state leadership could set a high-profile example. Instead, the official image being presented to the world, coupled with our case numbers, has become ugly and even embarrassing.
To be sure, while our cases are spiking here, they’re also surging in states where there are more stringent measures in place. So, no defense is perfect against COVID-19 — I mean, if the coronavirus can find Harding County, it’s clear that even isolation isn’t a sure-fire guarantee — but we all have to be on guard, wherever we are and any way we can. It’s for the greater good.
And that sentiment really is important to a lot of people here, contrary to what others elsewhere may perceive.
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