While Texas was still cleaning up the aftermath of a tragic winter storm that left millions without water and electricity for a week or more, Governor Greg Abbott dropped a major bombshell last week: He announced plans to open up businesses at 100% capacity and remove the mask mandate at the same exact time, beginning Wednesday, March 10.
Naturally, the news was met with cheers and jeers across the political spectrum. Judging from what I’ve read, Texas is nowhere near in a position to be doing these two things simultaneously. As of this writing, only 8.4% of Texans are fully vaccinated, and our cases are the highest in the nation (we had 6,000 cases just last week). The governor’s announcement felt premature at best and reckless at worst.
When I first got wind about a group of conservatives in Dallas who were planning a “mask-burning” party to celebrate the sudden shift in policy, I rolled my eyes and let out an audible groan. But when I discovered that a Jewish group was spearheading the event — and that the gathering would include kosher food and a performance from a conservative Jewish comedian — my heart truly sank. This is not good for us — or for anyone.
Maybe it’s just me, but every time a Jew is called out for saying or doing something unsavory, I feel a wave of nausea wash over me. It’s not that I think that we Jews are without flaws. Far from it — we’re human and, therefore, flawed like everyone else. It’s just that I prefer when we’re in the news for something positive. (See: Israel’s COVID-19 vaccination success.)
This mask-burning party will be held at a “Beautiful Private Estate,” on Wednesday, when the mandate ends, and is being organized by several conservative groups, including the Dallas Jewish Conservatives, Hispanics Against Socialism, and DFW Deplorables. Some 150 people are expected to attend; I assume the gathering will be a mix of local Jews and non-Jews. (Notably, on the event schedule, the 6:30 to 7:30 slot is for attendees to “Schmooze with Fellow Guests.”)
I find the gathering deeply upsetting and unsettling for many reasons. First off, the group says they’re not anti-mask; rather, they are anti-government interference. But let’s be clear: public health and individual rights are deeply intertwined in the middle of a global health crisis. Making this distinction is simply a matter of semantics designed to comfort those who want to burn masks in the name of their “freedoms.”
Plus, even if this event is being held outside, gathering 100-plus people seems incredibly irresponsible and reckless right now; there are real health risks involved. Not to mention that burning masks — a visible symbol of caring for others over the past year — sets a very bad example for children who have bravely become accustomed to wearing them for the sake of protecting their fellow classmates, friends, and family members.
I think what saddens me most about the mask-burners is how their very loud, very public, “but-my-freedoms!” stance truly flies in the face of many of the Jewish values we are taught from a young age. That includes, of course, one of the most basic tenets of our faith, pikuach nefesh — the idea that human life comes first; that saving a human life is integral to who we are. To see such a willful and blatant disregard of that Jewish value, from fellow Jews, really stings.
Of course, throughout the pandemic, there have been countless examples of Jews honoring this tradition, like this Jewish teen who has helped more than 1,000 people get vaccine appointments. Many synagogues, including my own, have organized blood drives. In fact, our Jewish community here in suburban Dallas has been very focused on keeping others safe all year — our congregation switched to live-streamed Shabbat and High Holidays services, for example, and to safely maintain a sense of community, we did a fun, socially-distant drive-in movie night for Hanukkah, complete with latkes and popcorn brought to your car window! And while I was hoping our kids could return to in-person Hebrew school this semester, our synagogue decided in the interest of safety for students and teachers alike that we will be staying remote.
All in all, I feel proud about how responsible we, as a Jewish community, have been. I think that’s why seeing this group of Jews just 20 miles away promoting mask-burning feels so icky. After all, communal responsibility is a huge part of our tradition and this attitude doesn’t reflect the values of the Jewish community I have experienced here.
This group may disagree with the “politics” of mask-wearing (which never should have been a thing, don’t get me started on that!), but the truth is, when you wear a mask, you’re not just protecting yourself. Wearing a mask protects others, including people who may be immunocompromised, or who may be asymptomatic carriers who could then carry it to someone more vulnerable. Wearing a simple piece of fabric can truly help save lives.
In the absence of government leadership, it’s incumbent upon us all, to misquote Gandhi, “be the change we wish to see in the world.” That is why, in spite of the premature reopening of Texas — and even though my husband and I are participating in a clinical trial where there’s a 66% chance we each have been vaccinated already — my family and I will ignore the governor’s mask rescission. Because we care about others, because we want to do our part to help save a life, we will continue to wear our masks, practice social distancing, and avoid large indoor gatherings. And as much as I’d love to gather with my far-flung family, whom I haven’t seen since November 2019, we’ll be sticking to our “pandemic pod” of close friends on our street until we are all vaccinated.
With the governor’s orders kicking into effect tomorrow, local authorities and businesses can decide if they plan to enforce the CDC guidelines or adapt to the governor’s mask mandate removal. My kids have been in school since September — they’re wearing masks, sitting at desks with shields, and practicing social distancing, all with zero interruptions to their learning. Naturally, I was worried by the governor’s announcement: If they did away with the mask mandate, what would happen?!
Fortunately, our school board — as well as countless other local and national companies and businesses here — have risen to the occasion. They will continue to follow the CDC’s guidelines, essentially overriding the governor’s mask mandate removal. These institutions know they’ll anger some with this decision, and may lose some business as a result. But it isn’t always easy to do the right thing. Public safety must come first, and I’m grateful some places are prioritizing it.
Wearing a mask may not be fun or convenient, but doing so demonstrates a public display of loving our neighbors, caring for our community, and looking out for one another. Put another way, wearing a mask is a mitzvah. And it’s one we should all be prioritizing and teaching our children until this pandemic is once and for all in our shared rearview mirror.
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