Pastor Ken Peters of the Church at Planned Parenthood in Knoxville, Tenn., boasts that he hasn’t canceled a single Sunday of outdoor church service throughout the past year and a half. Upwards of 200 people attend weekly, he says, and not one parishioner has died from COVID-19, despite not having instituted social distancing guidelines or mask rules.
“We haven't shut down church, we don't have social distancing … and nobody has died,” Peters told Yahoo News. “And we’ve gone on with life as normal. We’re pretending like it’s the old USA. We’re still living in 2018 and loving life.”
Despite drastic spikes in the number of COVID-19 cases across the state and nearly 1,000 confirmed cases in children and staff members in middle Tennessee schools after just the second week of classes, the father of four believes that mask mandates, for schools in particular, violate the country’s promise of freedom.
With young people in grades K-12 set to return to school in many Southern U.S. states this month, and in many Northern states in a couple of weeks, mask mandates for schools where children are not yet eligible for vaccines have come under scrutiny. And in some public schools that have just begun the school year, thousands of children are already in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19.
But for Peters, the numbers don’t change his stance.
“I don’t think a federal government should mandate things. I don’t think even state governors should mandate things,” said Peters, whose children range in age from 10 to 22. “I think it should be handled at the local level. I think parents should make the decisions when it comes to their children, and parents are the No. 1 authority in their children's lives.”
Health officials nationwide have shared starkly contrasting guidance since the pandemic began.
“We have data from last year from schools that were able to remain open, even before we had vaccines, that [shows] measures such as masks combined with social distancing and also avoiding large crowds were able to keep schools and daycares and camps open during the year,” Yahoo News Medical Contributor Kavita Patel said. “The schools that have had mandatory mask mandates, as well as mandatory staff vaccination requirements, have had some of the lowest reported cases [nationwide].”
Overall, about 199 million Americans, or 60 percent of the total U.S. population, have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the vaccine still has not been approved for Americans under the age of 12 — a group that totals about 50 million people.
Because children cannot receive the vaccine, Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, says adults have a responsibility to protect them.
“We as a society have failed our children,” Wen said on CNN’s “Inside Politics” on Sunday. “It is up to us as adults to get vaccinated, because there are children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, so it’s our responsibility.”
“There are schools reopening against the advice of public health officials who are saying, 'We can do this safely,' but there are politicians saying, 'We are not going to follow that public health guidance,' saying, ‘We are not going to do masking,’ which is one of the few tools we have to protect our children. And as a result we have made it harder for schools to stay open. We have made it more likely for children to be infected,” Wen said, adding, “I think this is a sad reflection that children are having to pay the price for irresponsible adults and reckless politicians.”
The majority of K-12 public and private schools in the U.S. already require in-person students to have vaccinations against other viral diseases like measles, mumps and rubella. But many middle and high schools, where students are old enough to get the COVID-19 vaccine, have been slower to adopt it while it is still categorized as “emergency use” only, according to the CDC.
Still, many Americans like Peters believe that any kind of mandate encroaches on what they consider their God-given liberties.
“I think [as parents] we ought to do everything we can whenever we can to allow our children, especially, but also adults, to breathe the way God made us,” Peters said. “I don't want to live the rest of my life with a diaper on my face.”
On Monday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, signed an executive order allowing parents to opt out of mask mandates at schools, effectively undermining school districts’ efforts to curb COVID-19 outbreaks and infections. As of Sunday, Tennessee recorded its highest weekly average of coronavirus cases since late January, according to the New York Times.
Lee’s order comes just days after two separate videos that went viral online showed parents and kids of varying ages rallying against mask mandates in the state. In one video, anti-mask protesters threatened doctors who supported mask guidance in schools for children during a local school board meeting in Williamson County. In another video, anti-mask protesters repeatedly chanted “No more masks!” in Franklin, Tenn., as they rallied against local mask mandates for elementary schools.
In other GOP-governed states like Arizona, Florida and Texas, mask wars continue to heat up. Govs. Doug Ducey, R-Ariz., Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., and Greg Abbott, R-Texas, have all threatened to punish school districts that defy their orders against mask mandates in schools, including withholding funding.
President Biden, in response, said on Wednesday that his administration will not "stand by" while state leaders try to "block and intimidate" local officials who have imposed mask mandates at schools. Biden has asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to use “legal action, if appropriate,” against these clashes.
The president has also railed against anti-mask rallies by praising health care workers and local leaders in response to the various clashes around the country.
“Our health care workers are heroes. They were the heroes when there was no vaccine. Many of them gave their lives trying to save others,” Biden said at a news conference last Thursday.
“To the mayors, school superintendents, educators, local leaders, who are standing up to the governors politicizing mask protection for our kids, thank you,” he added. “Thank God that we have heroes like you. And I stand with you all, and America should as well.”
In spite of rigorous trials involving tens of thousands of people and overwhelming research that shows the three emergency use authorized COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in preventing the spread of the disease as well as death from it, many Americans remain skeptical, and others are defiant against the science.
For Christina Dietrich, the founder of Delaware Moms Oppose Mandates, the mask debate is not partisan. She’s a self-proclaimed “Bernie leftist” but worries that mask mandates in schools will negatively affect the general psychological development of kids who are masked all week.
“I don’t understand what our endgame is here,” Dietrich, a mother of four children — 14-year-old twins, a 9-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl — told Yahoo News. “We seemed to have defanged this to the level of a normal respiratory virus. And so I think we really owe it to the kids to get back to normal, because they’re the ones who have sacrificed so much for the sake of everyone else last year.”
Dietrich, who works in home health care, admits she was cautious at the beginning of the pandemic about her contact with others, but now she tells her children that “COVID is not dangerous for kids.”
Her state's officials, however, believe otherwise.
Delaware Gov. John Carney, a Democrat, last Tuesday introduced an indoor mask mandate for all businesses across the state, including private and public schools, in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.
Dietrich doesn’t agree with the premise of this decision.
“If the logic is that we cannot allow a virus to transmit asymptomatically to anyone, then we have to do this forever because zero COVID is not happening,” she said, adding that, ultimately, the decision of whether to wear masks in schools should fall to parents.
“Because a mask prevents transmission of a virus as a medical device, I think that parents should be able to make medical decisions for [their children],” she said.
And she’s not alone in her rationale.
Conservative commentator Matt Walsh recently spoke at a Nashville school board meeting and slammed Tennessee’s child mask policy, calling it child abuse. A clip of his rant went viral and has been praised in Republican circles.
“You in the school board have decided that our kids should go to school all day, every day, wearing muzzles like rabid dogs,” Walsh said. He claimed that “COVID poses almost no risk to our kids at all” because fewer than 400 children have died out of more than 4 million infected.
While children appear to have a much lower chance of getting severely sick or dying from the virus than adults, each succeeding COVID variant causes the virus to get more contagious and more dangerous as time goes on, according to health experts. A Mississippi eighth-grader reportedly died last Saturday, hours after testing positive for the virus. Additionally, asymptomatic people can spread the virus to others who could respond much more severely.
For many Americans, including health professionals, one death that could have been prevented is one too many.
“It’s true that we face all sorts of risks as humans. But we do a lot to buy down those risks, particularly for our children, because we want them to be safe and healthy,” Dr. Caitlin Rivers, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told Yahoo News last week. “But even knowing that the risk that my child will end up in the hospital is less than 1 percent, I still don't want that 1 percent. And so when we’re thinking about doing things like gathering outside or wearing a mask, they’re such simple steps to take that can protect not just kids, but also the people around them.”
Seven states, most with GOP governors, are doing all they can to limit mask mandates by banning them altogether or allowing parents to opt out of proposed mandates at schools.
Arkansas Gov. Ava Hutchinson, a Republican, had signed a bill banning mask mandates earlier this year, but it was later struck down by a state court. Now, citing a rise in cases across his state, he says he regrets signing the law.
“In hindsight, I wish that it had not become law,” he said at a news conference earlier this month.
And recent polling shows support for mask mandates is building.
The latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll, from early August, shows that most Americans, or 55 percent, are in favor of making it “mandatory to wear masks in public,” while 45 percent are opposed. These numbers show a sharp reversal from just one month prior, when the public was opposed to mask mandates by 60 to 40 percent.
Still, with school already underway in much of the country, many parents want to decide the fate of their children without outside input.
“I don’t want to be so afraid of dying that we stop living,” Peters, the pastor, said. “I want my kids to live a great life.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images, Hollie Adams/Getty Images
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