Lynne Cope Hummell

Raise your hand if you wear a face mask every single time you walk out the door of your home or office.

Raise your hand if you wear one when you go into any place of business, including stores and restaurants.

How about walking through a crowded shopping area outside? Waiting for a table at a restaurant?

Do you sometimes wear one? Or maybe you never have, and never will?

The debate over wearing masks in public has built to a fever pitch. Neighbors are arguing with neighbors. Friends are at odds with one another. Of course, social media is ablaze with often not so civil discourse – calm discussion and research taking a backseat.

What are we to do to reach common ground?

While town, county and state leaders discuss options for issuing mandates or not, medical professionals give us varied information. It’s hard for us to know who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s got our best interests at the forefront, and who’s just jabbering to try to be heard.

For weeks – even months, different types of businesses have followed different guidelines. Many of those handed down through official channels were optional.

(NOTE: Just before press time, this office received notification of a special meeting of Hilton Head Island Town Council on June 29, and an emergency meeting for Bluffton Town Council on June 30. Both agendas indicate the meetings will address a possible requirement for masks to be worn at all times in public.)

Mask-wearing suggestions are part of the Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Chamber of Commerce’s Path Forward Readiness Plan. Those businesses who agree to follow it also get a decal for their window. While the plan promotes deep cleaning, sanitizing, and distancing protocol, decisions about wearing of masks for workers or customers is left to the business owner to consider.

On June 23, Gov. Henry McMaster launched “Palmetto Priority,” an initiative to encourage restaurants to follow stricter rules of COVID-19 safety, and earn a decal for the front window. The Governor said in his press conference, addressing the general public, “Don’t go in if you don’t see that seal.”

Guidelines are different from rules, of course. Perhaps that’s an issue for some folks. “Nobody can make me do that because it’s just a guideline.” True. But can’t you just wear one out of respect for others?

Someone pointed out that wearing a mask for others is sort of like wearing pants. We certainly have the option to walk around bottomless, but aren’t we wearing pants for safety, to protect ourselves, and others from having to see what we should be covering?

Some say that mandating the wearing of masks violates our rights. “They can’t legislate this,” some say. But isn’t it a safety issue? I can recall a time when we didn’t “have to” wear seatbelts in the car. Now we get a ticket if we are caught not wearing one. Studies have shown that seatbelts save lives.

And most medical research I’ve heard and read says the same about wearing a mask in public.

Maybe the problem is that we can’t see the particles of COVID-19 that come out of the mouths and noses of those infected. We might be doing our best to stay distanced from everyone, and we might be wearing masks – even most of the time.

As with anything else that we don’t completely understand, the truth about the wearing of face masks has been difficult to discern. Official direction has changed. First the famed Dr. Fauci and the CDC said “no”; then, as scientists learned more about the virus, guidelines changed. Dr. Linda Bell, the state epidemiologist for South Carolina, has recently implored us to wear a mask.

Health care officials at every level are calling for “universal masking” – meaning all of us, all the time we are somewhere other than our homes or alone outdoors.

Just before press time, we received a letter from Russell Baxley, president and CEO of Beaufort Memorial Hospital, via Mayor Billy Keyserling of Beaufort. Baxley said the number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital has doubled within a week. Then he continued:

“I don’t believe it is reasonable to expect Beaufort or South Carolina to shut down again, but the only way to avoid another shut down is universal masking in public.

“The only way to avoid overwhelming the hospital in a second wave is universal masking.

“The only way to stop this current surge is universal masking.

“The only way to save lives is universal masking.

“If we are waiting on the hospital to fill up before we sound the alarms, then it is already too late, so the hospital is sounding them now.”

Baxley continued, pointing out that “it is not just the elderly and the immunocompromised anymore … we are admitting the young and healthy.”

Certainly, you and I do have personal rights, and we also have personal social responsibilities. In this time of heightened transmission of the virus, it only seems right that we should do what we can to ensure our community is as safe as it can be. We continue to wash our hands often, use hand sanitizer, and we should be respectful of others.

If you can’t or won’t stay home, if you can’t or won’t remain socially distanced when out in public, then you must wear a mask.

You’re wearing pants because that’s what society requires for decency. Maybe we should view masks in the same way.

Rules or not, do the decent thing. Wear a mask.