The front page of Sunday’s New York Times featured a co-lead story by J. David Goodman lecturing Lubbock residents on masks: “Virus Inundates Texas, Fed by Abiding Mistrust Of Government Orders.” The subhead was a quote: “Masks? ‘We’re Done With All That.’” If that didn’t get the Dumb Texas Trumpers point across, check out the text box: “Safety mandates fall on deaf ears deep in Trump country.”
Yet for many conservatives, even those with the virus now at their door, the resurgence has not changed opinions so much as hardened them.
For those Texans, trust in government is gone, if it was there to begin with, and that includes some of the state’s top leaders. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of Texas declared himself tired of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. “I don’t need his advice anymore,” Mr. Patrick said.
Upon spotting a group drinkers on a patio at a brewery in Lubbock, Goodman concluded woefully, “Not a mask in sight.”
Gee, why would Texans shrug at public health advice? One huge hint was offered by Michael Powell, a sports columnist for the paper who wrote what counts these days as a brave essay, posted on Monday but yet to make it into print. It appeared under a misleadingly mild headline: “Are Protests Dangerous? What Experts Say May Depend on Who’s Protesting What.”
Powell politely scorned public health officials for their rank hypocrisy over social distancing, masks, and mass gatherings. Conservatives who protested against overzealous lockdowns were seen as killers when they engaged in protests. Yet the media studiously forgot their own health lectures when liberals took to the streets after the killing of George Floyd:
As the pandemic took hold, most epidemiologists have had clear proscriptions in fighting it: No students in classrooms, no in-person religious services, no visits to sick relatives in hospitals, no large public gatherings.
So when conservative anti-lockdown protesters gathered on state capitol steps in places like Columbus, Ohio and Lansing, Mich., in April and May, epidemiologists scolded them and forecast surging infections. When Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia relaxed restrictions on businesses in late April as testing lagged and infections rose, the talk in public health circles was of that state’s embrace of human sacrifice.
And then the brutal killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on May 25 changed everything.
Soon the streets nationwide were full of tens of thousands of people in a mass protest movement that continues to this day, with demonstrations and the toppling of statues. And rather than decrying mass gatherings, more than 1,300 public health officials signed a May 30 letter of support, and many joined the protests.
That reaction, and the contrast with the epidemiologists’ earlier fervent support for the lockdown, gave rise to an uncomfortable question: Was public health advice in a pandemic dependent on whether people approved of the mass gathering in question? To many, the answer seemed to be “yes.”
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