'And the sign said ... '

David Feels - 08/13/2020

Instead of posting the Colorado state order that requires masks to be worn inside public places, the sign on this Montezuma County business door read, “We prefer to see your smiling faces, but it’s up to you.” Perhaps the sentiment was only intended to be a charming antidote to the political ideological battle being waged across America, so I reached for the door and stepped inside.

I’m happy to report that I wasn’t immediately tossed out of the establishment for leaving my mask in place. In fact, I was quickly invited upon entering – just in case I didn’t know how to read, couldn’t see because my glasses had fogged up, or hadn’t noticed the sign – to join in what psychologists might refer to as a passive aggressive love-fest, a celebration of freedom within a local bastion of constitutional common sense.

“Oh, you don’t have to wear that mask” the sales lady cooed.

“Oh yes I do,” I replied, “for your sake as well as mine.”

In the interval between words, I surveyed a vast expanse of merchandise, and I noticed only one person wearing a mask. It turned out to be my own reflection in a pane of glass. Even the woman behind the lunch counter worked mask-less. Customers and consigners milled around, displaying their own smiling faces, glancing at me as if I was a pariah. No doubt I served as a reminder that a virus that had already killed more than 160,000 Americans was still hanging around. I had invaded their bubble of happiness like a needle against a festive balloon. I had tweaked their uncertainty by bringing in my own.  

Then the woman who’d greeted me slipped over to the lunch counter to whisper something to the cook. I suspected I’d become a talking point, a foot soldier from the enemy camp, even – dare I say it – a Democrat. When I first pulled up and parked outside, I’d only thought of myself as a customer, a member of our community going out of his way to support a local business. Believe it or not, I’d even considered buying something I really didn’t need before being served up a side order of angst that I didn’t really care for. It was time to leave.
She’d made her point. Now let me take a moment to make mine.

A “Mask Required for Entry” sign is not an assault on anyone’s constitutional rights. If not wearing a mask only endangered those who wouldn’t wear one, there would be no health issue at stake. Think of it as the old-fashioned “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign, though those postings had a more sinister history.

They gained prominence during the early 1960s, when civil unrest and racial injustice dominated our nation’s news. Businesses, no longer able to display “Whites Only” or “Colored Entrance” signs in their windows opted for a new declaration – an owner-imposed dress code on its customers. A tiny disclaimer “By order of the Board of Health” was added like fangs to a muppet, because no federal or state law to this day documents an ongoing health threat arising from not wearing shoes and shirts into a store, or even a restaurant.

The same kind of sign proved useful for keeping long-haired hippies representing the counter-culture anti-war movement out of stores. I remember singing along with David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” as I rode my bicycle home from the high school tennis courts, “letting my freak flag fly” as I raced down the hill toward home, too young to grasp the politically packed overtones. These days the lyrics might go like this:

Almost wore my mask
It happened just the other day
It was gettin’ kind of scary
I could-a said too many people were in my face.
But I didn’t and I wonder why
A swab up my nose just makes me cry
And I feel like I owe it, yeah ... to someone, yeah    

You see, the “Mask Required” sign has nothing to do with a heavy-handed attempt to assert gratuitous authority. Nobody has ever died from exposure to long hair, although skin color has proved lethal for far too many Americans. Bigotry has a longer history than the coronavirus and many don’t seem to care if there’s ever a cure. If only a vaccine for stupidity would emerge.

You see, a “No Service” sign is the symptom of an ideological problem, a reaction by a particular person who refuses to accommodate a different point of view, but a “Mask Required” – too politicized in America – makes it appear a health threat no longer exists. Still, it should be heeded, like an actual health notice posted for everyone’s safety, no different than a sign that reports “Salmonella Served Here.”


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