Gov. Asa Hutchinson missed both his cues, badly, in his daily briefing Monday.
He began the briefing with the distressing news that former U.S. Sen. David Pryor, the most beloved man of our time in Arkansas, elderly, frail post-stroke, post-heart attack, weak of voice and manner but strong of human connection when last I saw him at the grocery store pre-pandemic months ago, is in the hospital with the virus.
Hutchinson delivered a couple of the right lines, such as this one: When it happens to Pryor, because he’s such an Arkansas institution and icon, it happens to all of us. And this one: The Pryor news ought to remind us, or stimulate us, to “sense the urgency” on the need to wear masks.
That was his cue to say that, with Pryor heavily on our minds, the time was right for him to issue a statewide mask mandate.
It was for him to say the point is not protecting yourself or infringing on your cussedly independent streak by which you don’t want to be told to protect yourself. It was for him to say the point was to protect the elderly and frail and vulnerable and deeply beloved among us, against whom we might be unwittingly wielding a lethal weapon merely by unmasked breathing.
But the governor didn’t say that. He just said, again, that we really need to wear masks. It’s the one effective tool we know we can use, he said.
If you feel like it.
Having missed the cue the first time, Hutchinson got set up a second time at this Monday briefing, this time by state health director Nate Smith, who said he wanted to answer people who say masks won’t protect you.
It’s true, Smith said, that masks carry product-liability protections saying they do not prevent wearers from getting the virus. It’s true the virus can come in under that mask, he said.
But the point, Smith said, is that masks do a much better job, an effective one, preventing a person from emitting the virus to another. That means, he said, that all of us thus are dependent on others wearing masks to protect us.
Masking works best if all of us are masked for each other, in other words.
Again, the governor failed on his cue, which was to thank Smith for reminding us that mask-wearing is not about self-protection, but protection for others, such as, say, David Pryor. And it was to say that a government mandate to wear masks was not an order attempting to force anyone to do anything only for their own good. Instead it was an order attempting to force all of us to help take care of each other.
And then he could have signed such an order.
Those would have been powerful, profound, poignant moments, seeking to bring Arkansans together for each other in the spirit of our beloved icon lying ill.
Yet Hutchinson chose to talk loftily of something else—“needed flexibility”—which he said he was proud to have facilitated by permitting cities to adopt mask ordinances, but only if they carried no enforcement authority other than making police available to eject a customer who was being belligerent. The police can do that already.
Asa’s touted “flexibility” is the flexibility to be irresponsible toward others.
Once again, the governor of the state had not only acceded to irresponsibility, and not only sanctioned it, but oddly extolled it.
It must be that he is afraid of hard-right types who believe in their misguided Trumpian allegiance that the virus is media hype and a Democratic hoax. It has to be that he is afraid of those who bellow that they’ll be damned if they’ll stand by and let somebody take away their constitutional right not to wear what they want not to wear.
The point of a mask mandate is to get more people to wear them, not arrest every yahoo not wearing one.
The beauty of masks is that they represent caring for each other.
And we were always told there was so much natural beauty in Arkansas.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers’ Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] . com . Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.