Mon. Nov 29th, 2021


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Opinion | In the South, We Are Fighting Covid. And Our Own Elected Officials.

5 min read

NASHVILLE — In case you’re wondering how things are going here in the Delta Rising region of the United States, I regret to report that things are going badly. Very, very badly.

Our intensive care units are full. Our children are getting sick in record numbers. Nevertheless, a small subset of unmasked, unvaccinated humanity has taken to yelling during school board meetings, and the most extreme protesters have issued threats against nurses and physicians who dared to speak publicly on behalf of such reasonable pandemic mitigation measures as masks and vaccines.

It’s so bad that the Tennessee Medical Association had to issue a statement in support of the exhausted heroes who for the past 18 months have been risking their own lives to care for strangers. “The enemy is the virus, not health care workers,” the statement read.

This is what some of us have become here in the American South: people who need to be reminded that our doctors are not our enemies.

Things have gotten this terrible for one reason: Our elected leaders keep making an already bad situation much worse. Consider Tennessee’s governor, Bill Lee. When a handful of school districts here began to issue mask mandates to protect children too young to be vaccinated — as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — he issued an executive order allowing disgruntled parents to opt out, effectively rendering all mask mandates unenforceable.

This is a new low even for Mr. Lee, whose failures during this pandemic are too manifold to be enumerated in this small space.

Children, like adults, wear masks in part for their own protection and in part to protect others. Mask mandates protect children only when masking is universal. This is not a hard concept to understand.

We cannot blame ignorance for Mr. Lee’s executive order. It is nothing short of perfidy to place a higher priority on humoring the kind of people who threaten doctors and nurses than on protecting the health and safety of schoolchildren and their families. Some 1,200 children every day are getting sick with Covid in this state, and Mr. Lee’s response is to tie the hands of the people who are actually trying to help.

It’s worth pointing out that this is a partisan position, not a regional one. In the three Southern states headed up by Democratic governors — Kentucky, Louisiana and Virginia — school mask mandates are firmly in place. But as a Republican, Mr. Lee is not remotely alone. In fact, in banning school mask mandates he was essentially copying Florida’s governor, Rick DeSantis, who issued a similar executive order more than two weeks before Mr. Lee. The ban issued by Texas’ governor, Greg Abbott, came a day before Mr. DeSantis’.

Fortunately, many citizens in these states and others in the region are determined to keep themselves and their children safe, even if their leaders keep undermining those efforts at every turn.

No sooner had Mr. Lee signed his executive order than Dr. Sara Cross, a Memphis physician on his own Covid task force, issued a public statement decrying his decision. “I fear for my 6-year-old daughter,” she said in a video. “Opting out of wearing masks is putting all of our children in harm’s way.”

In Texas, the families of 14 children with disabilities have filed a federal lawsuit against Mr. Abbott and the Texas Education Agency commissioner, Mike Morath, arguing that the ban on school mask mandates puts their children in peril. (Texas has paused the enforcement of its ban, pending the resolution of several legal challenges.)

Here in Music City, the pushback against state leaders began, naturally enough, with musicians and music venues. For people whose work brings them into contact with thousands of strangers, this is not a political issue; it’s a life-or-death issue.

Nashville has so far issued neither a mask mandate nor a vaccine mandate for businesses operating here, but there’s an ever-growing list of music venues that require proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to enter, including the massive Bonnaroo music festival in Manchester, Tenn. The musician Jason Isbell now requires proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test to attend his shows, wherever they are held. “I’m all for freedom, but I think if you’re dead, you don’t have any freedoms at all,” he told MSNBC.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s two largest school districts — Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools — continue to enforce their mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s executive order, and Nashville’s district attorney, Glenn Funk, has said that he “will not prosecute school officials or teachers for keeping children safe.” Some Tennessee pastors are encouraging other districts to defy the ban, too: “I’m well aware of what we are asking,” the Rev. Lillian Lammers told The Tennessean’s Brett Kelman. “There were many times in the Bible where Jesus broke the law in order to feed people or care for people, as a way of teaching others that sometimes the law can get in the way of doing what is right.”

That message of civil disobedience seems to be resonating across the South.

Last week, the school board of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Florida’s largest school district, and school districts in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa and Palm Beach County, voted to approve mask mandates in open defiance of Mr. DeSantis’s ban. And they did so despite the threat of penalties leveled by the Florida state board of education against board members and superintendents in Broward and Alachua Counties, which had already established mask mandates.

In South Carolina, which passed a ban on mask mandates as part of its budget, a bipartisan group of state legislators has called for a special session to reconsider the ban. The city of Columbia has passed a mask mandate in elementary and middle schools, and fire marshals are in place to enforce it.

School districts across Texas — in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio — are equally defiant. Arkansas’s governor, Asa Hutchinson, now regrets the ban he signed into law in the spring, and he is defying his base in attempting to overturn or modify the ban.

Look at a map of the worst Covid hot spots around the country, and you will see that the region getting most pummeled by this virus is, not coincidentally, the same one that is governed primarily by Republicans. Those supermajorities are why there has always been plenty of perfidy to go around down here, but this time the Republicans in charge have gone too far. People have finally stopped waiting for their leaders to lead and are taking matters into their own hands.

Our lives and our children’s lives are on the line.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss” and the forthcoming “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South.”

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