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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Mixed messaging

by John Brummett | April 1, 2021 at 3:10 a.m.

April Fool's Day seems an appropriate occasion for holding forth on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's announcing that the need to wear masks isn't over, but the state's mandate is.

Y'all do the best you can. That was the governor's message.

Hutchinson and his people said the schools could decide on their own on mask mandates. He said cities could too. He urged everyone to honor mask-wearing policies posted at restaurants and office buildings and spas.

That means Little Rock and Fayetteville can keep their policies, presumably. It also means I'd hate to be the Arkansas storekeeper trying after his governor had abandoned him to get an open-carrying right-winger to put on a mask or leave.

Hutchinson did everything but say he ought to keep mandating masks but just didn't feel like it anymore. He said there was a certain mask weariness about.

That sounds a little like quarterly estimated income-tax payments. There's a weariness consuming me over those obligations. It seems the governor, for consistency's sake, could tell us the need for paying income taxes isn't over but that mandated remittances are.

We could see how that would work for the state budget, just as we'll see how virus resistance will work without mandating masks for the public health condition.

Let me interject on the governor's side: He said he'd set conditions for removing the mask mandate at the time he imposed it and that those conditions had been met with the downturn in infections and hospitalizations.

But the first question he got from the pesky media was relevant: How could he order masks removed here when there is a national uptick in virus cases that the CDC is openly worried about and as the president of the United States is urging states to keep or reinstate mask mandates?

Hutchinson basically said he'd made a deal with regulation-resistant Arkansas and was going to keep it.

Everyone would surely have forgiven him for seeking a short extension considering the new indication of a national trend and the ensuing CDC concern--except for the hard-core right-wingers who'll never forgive him in the first place.

Why keep a deal with them when they didn't honor the deal from the get-go?

Hutchinson's health secretary, Dr. Jose Romero, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist, told the media that he is worried about rising cases elsewhere and reiterated that everyone should wear a mask.

He basically said, by my reckoning, that, hey, he just works here.

Then a pesky reporter asked specifically if Romero favored removing the mask mandate, and Hutchinson notably presumed to answer for him. He said Romero was a good partner and that he liked people around him who expressed differing views.

Then the governor asked Romero if he had anything to add, and Romero replied that he'd make like Dr. Deborah Birx and keep his mouth shut.

No, he didn't say that. He said the governor had given a fine answer. The rest was my reading of the words in large bold print between the lines.

Alas, it's all moot. State government has spoken: You need to wear a mask for yourself, for others, for all of us, but you should feel free not to wear one if you prefer because we won't pretend to try to make you.

But ... the governor did announce that all persons in Arkansas age 16 and up are now eligible to go get vaccinated.

It was an obvious decision considering that we have a large surplus of vaccines and vaccination clinics had already begun injecting them by a don't-ask, don't-tell policy regarding stated eligibility requirements.

Within seconds of Hutchinson's wide-opening of vaccine eligibility, I heard from Michael John Gray, the chairman of the state Democratic Party. He complained that the announcement had not been accompanied by any sense or statement of urgency.

Instead, it was accompanied only by a statement that no more masks are needed because all is well.

Indeed, if the situation is sufficiently relaxed to require no more mask mandate, where is the urgency to get vaccinated?

For the state to say it's all right not to wear your mask, but that it's imperative that you get vaccinated ... that's possibly mixed messaging.

A reader offered a suggestion. What if the state declared that the mask mandate would be lifted the moment the number of vaccinated Arkansans reached a certain level?

It's a fine idea in principled abstract, though I suspect its ultimate fatal flaw is any assumption that people would get shots to earn the right to take off masks they weren't wearing.

All that's left is to appeal to the sensible and responsible of us: Keep wearing your mask for the time being. Go get your vaccination right away. Mark your calendar, but in pencil, for tailgating this fall.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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