Bruce Wittmaier

Bruce Wittmaier, op-ed columnist

Slowly, cautiously, churches in Lancaster County are opening their doors. Social distancing is the order of the day. Wearing masks is more variable.

A mostly unmasked congregation gathered in one Lancaster County church on a recent Sunday. Then a respected older gentleman arrived. He was wearing a mask.

Almost as if by magic, masks appeared from pockets and purses, and found their way to faces. What had been a COVID-19 danger zone was transformed into a much safer place.

A respected example has a miraculous impact.

If the first masked arrival had been a stranger, the most likely effect would have been quite different. There would have been no rush to don masks, and the stranger may have felt unwelcome and may have departed.

In social situations, we are alert to cues that let us know what behavior is expected. Strangers look for those who seem to belong, and those who belong look to those who are respected or otherwise important. For example, a newcomer to a liturgical church watches others to see whether to stand, sit or kneel. It is all part of the adjustment process.

Sometimes the action of only one other person is sufficient to encourage another to do likewise. Even if others seem to discount what we are thinking, finding just one who agrees with us is sufficient to key our action. The power of one can be considerable, especially if it is a person of high status — a president, for example, or a respected individual. We prefer to act when our plan is affirmed.

What do we make of masks? They’ve been around for centuries, used to highlight characters in plays, though they generally covered the upper half of the face, or the whole face — useful for hiding one’s identity, especially when nefarious behavior is on the docket.

Ask nearly any American who grew up in the period stretching from the 1930s through the 1960s: “Who is that masked man?” and the Lone Ranger jumps into mind. The first radio broadcast was Jan. 30, 1933. (What was the character’s real name? That’s tougher. His last name, Reid, was mentioned occasionally on radio and TV. His first name, John, appears in some radio history accounts but was never used on the air.) His mask was his defining feature.

Surgical masks serve a protective function, keeping dangerous droplets out of the nose and mouth. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights this use. A study published this month in the journal of the National Academy of Sciences found that mask-wearing significantly reduced the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

The degree to which a mask protects the wearer remains the subject of research, but masks certainly protect other people from whatever we are putting into the air.

A recent example of mask-wearing failure occurred in a Magisterial District Court office in Intercourse. A state trooper failed to wear a mask as required in court facilities and later tested positive for COVID-19. Now a local attorney is self-quarantining.

Unfortunately, masks are now political statements. To wear one says, “I recognize the danger of this virus and want to protect myself and others.” To not wear one suggests there is no great problem, and it is up to me to decide whether to wear one.

It becomes a personal liberty issue for some and a conservative political statement. Others complain about the discomfort, the heat, the look of cowardice they believe wearing a mask conveys.

We are very good at finding reasons for our preferences. Logic can be irrelevant. Some might say it makes them too aware of the COVID-19 danger.

Again, we generally look to others to show us what behavior is expected. So the more people we see looking fashionable in masks, the more people will wear them. We’ll stand out because we don’t wear a mask rather than because we do. Whatever else happens, we do not want to be mocked.

President Donald Trump is especially mask-averse. He does not want to acknowledge the pandemic. He wants business as usual, a booming economy. He is always prepared to disparage science and other experts when evidence does not confirm his views. He stubbornly holds to his view while the pandemic rages. And his supporters follow along. We don’t know yet whether those who packed into his events in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Phoenix, Arizona, will pay the price for his obstinacy.

A significant minority of the populace sees the public health strategies instituted by state government direction as violations of personal liberty. To some degree, that is so.

Personal liberty is important to most Americans. We may not be at the stage of Founding Father Patrick Henry, who declared, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” but these words of Victorian-era poet William Ernest Henley — “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul” — resonate with many of us.

That does not mean, however, that we’ll always choose the greatest freedom. Being a member of a social group involves concessions for the good of all. When you wear a mask, you are sacrificing a small bit of liberty. But your choice is made for the overall benefit of the group, and you benefit when the group benefits.

Being in a society comes at a cost. Being a hermit has costs as well. What price freedom?

How much does it cost to wear a mask? How many lives saved does it take to be worth it? What is your choice? It is a choice for all of us to make.

Bruce Wittmaier, Ph.D., is a retired clinical psychologist, a sometime writer and speaker, and a resident of Lancaster city.