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At some point during this pandemic, too many in the Republican party decided to embrace irresponsibility.
Taking basic steps to protect oneself and others should be common sense. Isn’t that what we teach our kids?
We know masks shield others from COVID and big gatherings can spread infections far beyond those who attend. But President Donald Trump wears a mask inconsistently and during their recent debate criticized Joe Biden for wearing one. After introducing his Supreme Court nominee indoors and outdoors at the White House last month, Trump and dozens of his staffers got sick with COVID. Ignoring public health guidelines made 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a superspreader site.
Following Trump’s example and showing their own lack of responsibility, the Maine Republican Party held events with too many people inside without face masks. These weren’t informal gatherings but included a fundraiser and a rally with congressional candidates, former Gov. Paul LePage and the head of the Maine Republican party.
Trump’s own chief of staff, Mark Meadows, held a wedding reception for his daughter in May that broke local rules in Georgia.
Doing the right thing during the pandemic includes following rules governing travel and making sure any visitors do so. But when Sen. Susan Collins hosted her colleague Sen. Tim Scott in early October in Maine, both had recently attended indoor luncheons in the capital for Senate Republicans. Collins got tested the day after, when it turned out two GOP colleagues were infected. In contrast, Sen. Angus King follows Maine Center for Disease Control COVID travel guidelines and gets a test before coming back to Maine from Washington, D.C.
Anyone who follows the news of Maine’s superspreader event, which led to at least 170 infections and 8 deaths, knows that outbreaks don’t just start in cities. The vector for the spread was a wedding at the Big Moose Inn, which is located in Piscataquis County between Millinocket and the south gate of Baxter State Park. But during the last debate with Sara Gideon, Lisa Savage and Max Linn, Sen. Collins said that masks are not necessarily needed in rural counties “like Piscataquis County.”
Instead of being a simple matter of public health based in science, mask-wearing has become all too partisan. And Collins’ partisan choices have contributed to her sharp decline in support from Maine voters, a shift occurred before the current onslaught of campaign ads and before the pandemic. In a 2015 Morning Consult poll, a whopping 78 percent of Mainers approved of the job she was doing, but this dropped under 50 percent in late 2019 after Collins voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. By January 2020, only 42 percent of Mainers approved of how Collins was doing her job. But that is a matter of a politician’s political health, not our public health.
For the public, being responsible means doing what experts say is needed to prevent people from unnecessarily dying and suffering long-term health problems — wearing a mask, social distancing, washing hands, and following rules about how many people should gather together and what to do while traveling. That’s what we should do to act like grownups.
And for leaders, because their decisions affect many others, their burden is broader — serving as a role model and putting in place policies for enough testing, personal protective equipment, and contact tracing, and for resources to develop vaccines and treatments and help our schools and economy.
Unfortunately, we have a serious leadership failure that’s harming instead of helping. Laying out the dereliction of duty in detailed terms, a stunning editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine notes that “Instead of relying on expertise, the administration has turned to uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies.” The result of this irresponsibility is that tens of thousands have unnecessarily died so far and many more will suffer and die in the months ahead. It’s time for Americans to act like grownups and to pick elected officials who will serve responsibly.
Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.