Face masks have become the new political lightening rod. Some believe that they are the first line of defense against transmission of the coronavirus, while others consider them unnecessary and an infringement on personal rights.

What cannot be ignored are the numerous scientific studies of recent outbreaks that confirm the effectiveness of masks in reducing COVID-19 infection rates. Masks are a preventive device, not for ourselves, but for the people with whom we come in contact. In particular, masks are a key element of worker protection.

We are all familiar with the risks experienced every day by our frontline health care professionals and are grateful for their service. We do not question the need for masks in hospitals, health centers, elder care facilities or veterans’ health care settings.

But think for a moment about some other essential workers who may not be protected, such as employees in retail settings, groceries, restaurants, food processing plants, dollar stores, and convenience stores.

We have seen surges of cases in these settings and even deaths. Recent news reports have noted COVID-19 deaths among workers at Walmarts, Giant groceries and Trader Joe’s. Employee protests demanding better worker protections have erupted at Amazon warehouses and Whole Foods stores. Meat-packing plants in the Midwest and South have been afflicted with outbreaks while President Trump ordered them to remain open as “essential” industries. Right here in Portland in an outbreak among workers at the Tyson Food plant in April and May, 51 employees tested positive, resulting in a shutdown for about a week.

Some in Maine believe that these are problems in bigger states and urban areas — that we are insulated from these challenges because of our rural nature.

However, as this pandemic broadens, the U.S. is now seeing surges in new infections in counties with fewer than 60,000 people. The pandemic that first plagued metropolitan areas is now marching into the rural heartland of America.

As states “open up” further, big-box stores and other retailers are seeking to protect their workers by requiring customers to wear masks. This has introduced another occupational hazard for employees who must enforce the policy — customer hostility, and even violence.

In California, a Target employee suffered a broken arm after removing two customers who refused to wear masks. A convenience store cashier was punched three times in the face by a man who refused to wear a mask. A guard at a Dollar Store in Michigan was even shot and killed while enforcing the mask rule. All in the name of personal freedoms.

As citizens of the United States, we wake up every day in the land of the free. However, we are subject to a wide range of laws and rules that protect the public’s safety, and we seem to have adapted well. Here are some common ones: mandatory seatbelt laws and widespread prohibition of smoking in public places, laws against consuming alcohol in public places or even possessing an open container in a car, and prohibition of guns in workplaces, including banning of open carry in Walmarts. Your town can even prohibit the use of fireworks.

All of these curtail our personal rights and freedoms in some way but do so in the name of the health of the greater good. We have survived the heated discussions and opposition that occurred when these rules were put in place and we have moved on. It is time to do the same with face mask rules, which are really just a temporary inconvenience.

We are in the early part of summer in Maine and celebrating the easing of restrictions. Our small businesses, stores, and restaurants are struggling to attract business and yet be safe. Let’s help them.

As we move more toward “normal” life, consider who may be the most at risk — those workers, employees, and managers on the front lines who interact with numerous customers, clients, or patients in a day. Those people who ensure that the country keeps functioning.

A mask may be uncomfortable for that 20-minute visit to a store, but it may be essential to the health of the employee who is serving you.

Lisa Miller, of Somerville, is a former legislator who served on the health and human services and appropriations and financial affairs committees. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.


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