If All Else Fails, Create Mask-free Zones

Last week the City of Sturgeon Bay amended its ordinance to include vaping in public places where smoking was already prohibited. No vapers were present to say the ordinance was infringing on their freedoms. No one said a word, and the ordinance passed quietly into city law.

There was a time when this would have drawn much attention. Back in 2010, when Wisconsin banished smoking inside bars, restaurants and other workplaces, the issue was hugely contentious. Advocates of the ban cited the health benefits. Critics said Wisconsin was a nanny state run amok.

Sound familiar?

Even before the indoor smoking ban, tobacco-free zones were widespread. They are now so common that no one is demanding the right to make others sick or the freedom to pollute the lungs of others. No one is clamoring for the statistics that show that tobacco-free zones effectively reduce the number of deaths by exposure to second-hand smoke. 

I know quite a few smokers and love a few, so this is not a slam against smokers. It’s just a fact that many people react poorly to having things taken away from them. Add a new prohibition or ban, and the emotional response will trigger outsized pushback. I’m not saying this is always a bad thing, but it is a thing, and it is a thing that’s happening today with masking. 

The officials who were elected to lead our county, cities, towns and villages never had to develop a position on how they’d handle a global pandemic. This was as new to them as it was to any of us. But they did sign up to be leaders. A simple definition of leadership is “the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal.”

In this case, it’s my opinion that our leaders should motivate people who are divided on a mask mandate to accept that it’s the easiest thing we can do to help minimize the spread of a pandemic virus. This is not easy given how divided we are, but neither was it easy to ban smoking indoors.

As a fallback measure, perhaps a different psychological tactic would be more motivating. It’s at least more entertaining to consider. If people don’t like being told what they may not do – and they don’t – tell them what they may do. Rope off spaces or use already configured public boundaries as mask-free zones. These would be similar to nude beaches, where people would be free to walk among their peers with indecently exposed faces. Being anywhere else, by default, would of course require a mask. 

The point of this inventive exercise is to offer something rather than take something away, and the point of that is to try to motivate people to achieve a common goal.