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A column by Tim L. Waltner  |  Former Courier Publisher 

  • Those working at the Salem Reformed Church food stand at the 2020 Power Show in Menno wore masks.
    Those working at the Salem Reformed Church food stand at the 2020 Power Show in Menno wore masks.

One of the most perplexing aspects of our collective response to COVID-19 is just how quickly wearing face masks became political.

Here’s some perspective. If you’re seriously ill, many people consider the Mayo Clinic as one of the preeminent health care organizations in the country. That’s not political; it’s science. We rely on the experience and expertise of health care professionals with our lives on a regular basis without hesitation.

And what does the Mayo Clinic say about face masks? Here’s what they post on their website:

Can face masks help slow the spread of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19?

Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the virus.

So why weren’t face masks recommended at the start of the pandemic?

At that time, experts didn’t know the extent to which people with COVID-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appeared. Nor was it known that some people have COVID-19 but don’t have any symptoms. Both groups can unknowingly spread the virus to others.

These discoveries led public health groups to do an about-face on face masks. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now include face masks in their recommendations for slowing the spread of the virus. The CDC recommends cloth face masks for the public and not the surgical and N95 masks needed by health care providers.

While anyone can find any “expert” to refute that, the medical community – including our local providers, by the way – overwhelmingly supports what the Mayo Clinic recommends.

Nevertheless, I see many people ignoring the recommendation, largely because of politics.

Wearing masks became political when President Trump dismissed and minimized the practice early on. That sent a clear message and set a tone across the country, based not on science but on politics. We see it in how South Dakota Gov. Noem has approached the practice in word and deed. Sadly, we see it in our local leaders as well.

Lost in the rancorous debate is the human factor.

When I see someone wearing a mask in situations where we can’t practice social distancing, it tells me that you care about your health – and the health of those around you. Wearing a mask is a simple act of courtesy, generosity and respect. It’s one of the most unselfish things you can do for someone else.

I’m trying hard not to judge people, but very frankly, it’s hard to escape the reality. When the overwhelming scientific evidence is that wearing masks helps slow the spread, the implication of not wearing one is pretty hard to ignore.

And since wearing a mask reveals caution, generosity and courtesy, the implication of not wearing one is obvious.

South Dakota has boasted itself as a place of independence and freedom. Our governor is quick to point out we didn’t lock down. OK. But independence and freedom also mean we have the opportunity – I would say responsibility – to do the right thing. Our collective failure to do that is showing in the dramatic rise in the number of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 in our state in recent weeks. That’s true locally as well. Hutchinson, McCook and Turner counties have gone from 181 cases on Sept. 1 to 366 cases on Tuesday of this week.

I want local businesses to remain open and thrive. I want the most vulnerable residents of our community – the elderly and particularly the residents of our nursing homes and care centers – to remain healthy. I want people to feel comfortable going to church. I want my grandchildren and their friends to attend school in person and enjoy all the athletic and musical opportunities that are part of that experience.

That’s why I wear a mask when I’m out and about and I can’t social distance.

I just wish more folks were doing the same thing. It’s the humane thing to do.


Now in retirement, Tim L. Waltner has returned to the pages of The Courier as a regular monthly columnist, taking the spot occupied by Dennis Schrock the first week of every month. Waltner’s career in community journalism began in 1973; he became editor of the paper in 1977 and publisher in 1984. He served in that role until his son, Jeremy, took over the operation in 2016. He now finds time for various projects — including scanning thousands of slides from days gone by.