Mother and child wearing face masks while shopping
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Ten years later bars and restaurants are still with us. Opposing COVID-19 safeguards is a more certain path toward going out of business.

There’s a little bit of déjà vu that surrounds the latest obstacle to public health in Wisconsin. Once again there are people trying to ensure the air we breathe isn’t trying to kill us and there are people—lobbyists, business groups, and enabling politicians—fighting those efforts every step of the way with positions that range from sincere to silly. Their obstinance to fighting a virus with a six-figure death toll should be resisted by every local and state leader who gives a damn about not seeing it grow to seven figures.

More than a decade ago the debate was about whether to ban most cigarette smoking in public places. Such a move, we were told with great hyperbole, would be the end of Wisconsin commerce, especially the hospitality industry. Fortunately, a lot of folks decided their freedom to breathe unpolluted air rightly took precedence over someone else’s actions who were a risk to others. 

Take it from this former state senator, getting to that point was a long, sometimes bitter process that strained alliances and even friendships. I met with many tavern and café owners—good people working hard to scratch out a livelihood. Some were hostile, but many others were frightened of the unknown. Their fears were being stoked by the tobacco industry and other major commerce groups convincing them their customer base would go away if they did the right thing for public health.

Well, we did the right thing and now Wisconsin is celebrating 10 years with air that is healthy. And chances are pretty good your favorite watering hole survived that important move to improve our health. Count me among the many who followed through enthusiastically on a prediction that plenty of customers would bring their business much more often once the smoke went away.

A decade later we again face a deadly threat from the very air we breathe when we’re in confined spaces. And like the last go-round, we do know there are proven ways to reduce that threat. One particularly effective way is practically the easiest: put on a face mask. It’s as easy as a seatbelt and likely as life-saving. 

And once again the most effective way to preserve lives during a pandemic has its critics and opponents.

In Portage County, for example, an organized outcry smothered a proposed face mask ordinance almost before the start of the one and only committee meeting scheduled to discuss it. And even internal requirements face pushback. When city of Wausau leaders discussed a mask policy, dozens of city employees signed a petition in opposition. Among their allies was at least one city council member who claimed masks do not protect the wearer from COVID-19 despite no shortage of studies about the effectiveness of masks. Masks are good for the wearer, but they’re even better for those around the wearer who may not even know they are carrying and potentially spreading the coronavirus.

Lashing out at such a simple, lightweight, proven protector is as unproductive as the recent instances of verbal abuse and threats being directed at local health officials. And don’t get me wrong: Frustration with this pandemic is completely understandable. 

This outbreak is about to enter its sixth month and the best Congress could muster in many cases was a $1,200 check and a Paycheck Protection Program that sent “relief” to billionaires, campaign donors, politicians, and publicly held corporations, rather than small entrepreneurs and family farms.

Wisconsin legislators, meanwhile, are at home collecting a full-time salary because Republican leadership sent them on a nine-month paid vacation as this was all beginning. Their service to their constituents has consisted of one special session to facilitate receiving federal aid. (And even that couldn’t be accomplished without slipping in last-minute attacks on some responders and a sweetheart deal for companies running nursing homes.) The Republicans in charge in Madison have spent more time and taxpayer dollars suing to overturn safety restrictions than they have doing anything to make Wisconsin safer. They carp about a delay in unemployment checks with no sense of irony after working for a decade to undermine the system for helping the jobless.

And state and federal Republicans are still in court suing to take away health care from millions even as a record number of Americans have lost coverage because of the pandemic.

But it’s hard or impossible to reach out and tell the president and leaders of Congress and the legislature about the many ways they’re falling short. Local health officials, on the other hand, are easier to reach, threaten, or intimidate even though they’re the people who are undoubtedly working harder than the politicians to protect public health. They deserve nothing but praise and support for trying to keep their closest neighbors –you and me– from dying.

The frustrated small businesses in Wisconsin need help. But they also need living, breathing customers and employees. And those employees and customers need to be reminded their actions or inactions in the public sphere go beyond the bubble of air around them. 

As we keep up the drumbeat for better assistance from Washington and Madison, let’s not cheat ourselves and one another by pretending proven safeguards don’t work or that they cause physical or economic malignancy. Let’s remember the lessons of a decade ago. Lives are saved by removing cigarette smoke and by reducing the spread of a deadly virus. Wearing a mask may feel awkward but you get used to it, as have countless doctors, construction workers, and people with compromised health.

Know what feels worse than awkward? A ventilator. 

Wear a mask.