At a time as critical as this one, the popular saying, “Orange County is the Florida of California” has never felt more accurate. The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the reckless behavior of several OC residents who have refused to let stay-at-home orders and scientifically-backed mandates encroach on their “personal freedoms.”
First came the lockdown protests — or, what others might call, marches “for freedom.” In mid-April, OC residents swarmed Huntington Beach’s Main Street, touting signs that read “Live free or die” or “Stop the tyranny.” One sign, held by a protester ironically dressed in a hazmat suit, went as far as calling COVID-19 a lie.
While event organizers promised to practice social distancing, footage of the demonstration suggests otherwise. In it, protesters with and without masks crowded corners of the city’s intersection, ignoring the CDC’s recommendation to keep six feet apart. Some waved American flags while others sported the old stars on stripes on their gaudily printed polos and leggings. At one point, the group began repeatedly chanting “U-S-A!”
When asked by the New University to provide a comment on the April Huntington Beach “March for Freedom,” event organizer and home decor company Patriette Decals declined and claimed, “We dnt do interviews with the media since they spread fake news” (typos preserved).
Only lately have these protesters’ wishes for California’s “liberation” been granted. Still, with California and other parts of the country now opening back up, these OC freedom fighters have found something else to — quite literally — scream about: masks. Now, wearing masks is a new kind of violation of their personal rights and freedoms.
At an OC Board of Supervisors meeting, attendees vilified health officer Dr. Nichole Quick’s mandatory mask order appealing to both religion and fifth-grade science.
“You’re telling me that I have to breathe in CO2 when God gave this body the ability to extract [it] … and now you want me to put it back in my body?” a woman asked the board. “I have natural rights as a sovereign citizen of the United States.”
When a higher power didn’t play a part in their rationale, those opposed to the order spoke “in the name of health science.” One man began his testimony asking the members of the board “‘are you smarter than a fifth grader?’”
“These 10-year-olds understood the most basic, important element needed by the human body is oxygen,” he said. “So … why in the name of science and health would you require people, especially children, to wear a mask, only to rebreathe the waste product the body wants to get rid of?”
While at first glance the logic of this fifth-grade teacher’s testimony seems sound enough, the WHO reassures mask skeptics that “the prolonged use of medical masks … DOES NOT cause CO2 intoxication nor oxygen deficiency.”
In spite of the WHO’s comprehensive list of COVID-19 myth busters, the debate over wearing masks still rages on in-person and online. One fed up South Carolina pediatrician even took to Facebook to settle the dispute over whether wearing one actually hinders oxygen intake. The photo series of herself maintaining similar—if not, the same—oxygen levels regardless of her face covering (or lack thereof) prove that masks don’t dramatically reduce oxygen intake. “Though [wearing masks] maybe inconvenient for some, you can still breathe,” she wrote.
It wasn’t long until these maskless Orange County liberty seekers yet again found their wish for freedom granted. Dr. Quick resigned after receiving threats from dissenters and feeling pressure from her fellow board members. Days after her resignation on June 8, her successor, Dr. Clayton Chau, reversed her mask order, deeming face coverings to be merely recommended rather than mandatory. OC residents won their right to breathe freely.
Those against the order’s reversal voiced their embarrassment over OC on Twitter. “Please pray for my friends,” a user wrote. “They are fine, they just live in Orange County.” Another user used a meme to mock OC locals for attempting to normalize not wearing a mask.
The celebration and frustration over OC’s new mask order lasted only a few days when a week later, California Gov. Gavin Newsom shocked the state with a policy that overruled OC’s and other counties’ alike. The executive order required all Californians, even our dear OC freedom fighters, to cover their mouths and noses in public. Those exempt include children two years old and younger, people with a medical disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering, and extends to customers dining-in and individuals engaging in “outdoor work or recreation.”
For a while, it was uncertain how exactly this new order would be enforced, but a Newsom representative later revealed that those who refuse to obey the mask order could be charged with a misdemeanor and subject to pay a fine. Still, the Los Angeles Times took note that when it comes to COVID-19 protocol, officials tend to educate rather than arrest. Meaning, with respect to pandemic safety, they’re more likely to encourage compliance with the law instead of punishing those for breaking it. (Seeing the duplicity of how law enforcement and city leadership responded to lockdown and Black Lives Matter protests, it’s unsurprising that officers tend to be more lenient with the anti-mask crowd.)
While Gov. Newsom’s statewide mandate initially feels like a victory against anti-maskers and coronavirus-deniers, it shouldn’t. This is nothing to celebrate. Newsom shouldn’t have needed to issue an executive mask order in the first place. Science and, more importantly, common sense tell us that “normalcy” can’t truly be restored until we have universal access to a vaccine. As we wait for that to happen, it’s only fair that we endure minor inconveniences like mask-wearing, social distancing and quarantining to protect the elderly, immunocompromised and other high-risk individuals who are defenseless once they come into contact with the virus.
Unfortunately, not all Americans understand this — including our maskless president. And it’s extremely embarrassing to attend an institution of higher education in a county filled with individuals who simply refuse to.
Perhaps the even greater shame is how OC officials have been handling all of it. The county’s Board of Supervisors practically allowed anti-maskers to bully them into bending to their selfish demands. Back in April, no arrests were made and zero curfews were enforced when OC residents broke stay-at-home orders and decided that their unscientific, tactless political agendas were more important than the public’s safety in the wake of a deadly pandemic. (Tangentially, arguing that protesters did the same after Floyd’s murder is like comparing apples to oranges. Racially-motivated police brutality is hardly a political issue and classifying it as such is an insult to Black lives. The Black Lives Matter movement is the fight to end an ongoing humanitarian crisis. Not to prematurely reopen a state so they can get their nails done and help spark the dreaded second wave.)
Community leaders shouldn’t be this deferential to ignorance. They pledge to protect yet simultaneously fail to realize that allowing their citizens to break quarantine, disregard social distancing and not wear masks is not as harmless as they treat it to be.
What’s driving lockdown protesters and anti-maskers isn’t mere naiveté, it’s willful ignorance — a motive that, although goes without saying, is infinitely more dangerous than the former. These are individuals who refuse to acknowledge the truth in spite of it being just a few clicks away. Many of them are people who have fiercely asserted that either the pandemic was never real or is long over. Yet, the rising number of cases and increasing death toll suggest otherwise.
It’s time to abandon the idea that willful ignorance can be cured. It’s time to accept that efforts to educate coronavirus-deniers and anti-maskers are futile. Instead, their denial should be fought. Not by shaming them and holding them socially accountable online, but by pressuring our local leaders to properly address actual threats to the community’s safety in the midst of a public health crisis. There are several ways to do so. Attending meetings, signing or starting petitions, and writing to officials are just a few of the many.
California is lucky Newsom overruled county mask orders, like OC’s, that disregarded the safety of its citizens. But we shouldn’t have to rely on a higher level of government to clean up the mess residents and local officials have made. As per the 2016 election, there won’t always be a higher authority that will rightfully put ignorance in its place.
Kaitlin Aquino is the 2020-2021 Opinion Co-Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.