Because Earth is currently impaired, I clean houses only about one or two days a week rather than my normal full five-plus ten-hour days. One such day, I returned home after cleaning three houses and collapsed on the couch.
“You busy tomorrow?” My dad asked.
“I have one house, but I can move it around. What’s up?”
“I’m organizing a protest in town. The Health Department is trying to pass a mandatory face-mask law, and you can get a misdemeanor for not complying.”
I postponed my house for the following day, woke at 5am on May 28th, then drove myself and some of my siblings to join our dad at the courthouse. Now, this might surprise some of you, but I don’t really like protests. I have to be really feeling it to participate. Like, it has to be for an extremely good cause. I’ve yet to attend a protest that I felt I could put all my passion in. So, I let my dad and siblings hold signs and shout, and I went in to see if I could get into the actual meeting/ hearing.
I arrived just in time to witness thirty people being ushered out of the courtroom. I smiled at the first person I saw, who seemed shocked to see my smile. Found out later he was one of the guards on duty. For the most part, things were tense between them and us. Except I viewed myself as an observer not really a part of either side.
“They are only allowing ten people into the room at a time,” someone said. “To maintain socially distancing.”
Angry laughter rippled around me. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting to see if any of us would be allowed in the courtroom; a room larger than the one we were being forced to stand in.
“We are the public!” Someone shouted. “You are not upholding the constitution by not allowing us inside.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
The police were called, about seven of them. They stood at the doors to make sure no one shoved their way into the courtroom.
People around me interrogated them. Others stood back and delivered mini-rants.
“They can’t make us all wear masks!”
“My business is already struggling. I have a family to feed.”
“One more week and I’ll lose everything I’ve worked for my entire life.”
“We need to work at full capacity.”
“If they take away my license, how will I make a livelihood.”
Here, I spoke my first and only words to the public in the hall. I said, “Why do you need permission to work? Who cares if they take away your licenses? Either you have the right to work and need no license and permit, or they have every right to dictate every move of your business.”
A shocked murmur of agreement went around the room. Even the guards almost seemed to agree with me.
I tried to make a conversation with a few individuals standing next to me.
“I deemed myself essential and remained open the whole time. I have an alteration shop.”
“I thought this was all crazy the entire time.”
“I’m here with my mom.”
“I’m a veteran and I say this is not what I fought for.”
The security guard said, “I can take two people into the room.”
No-one else seemed to hear. I raised my hand, “Oh, me!” He nodded, smirking, as I tripped past him into the room. I had been handed a document titled “EMERGENCY LOCAL HEALTH RULE RELATINGS TO COVID-19”.
Upfront six people sat around a large desk, two chairs between most of them. The man who would read the list of health rules, a bored and dull-looking man; the woman who would lead the meeting, wearing a cute, unique dress; two people of color (not black), both of who seemed very sweet and almost prone to be persuaded to the side of logic if they hadn’t also been loyal to their colleagues, another woman, another man: The Health Board.
They read from the document I’d been handed, talked about how we are still living under dangerous times, that while we are worried about our small businesses, we have to think about life first.
From the few others who’d been allowed in the room, from those standing outside, from the many protesting outside, and from all those all over the world, I head a single thought,
“Whose lives? The 3% that though we love are already dying, or the 97% of us that you are dooming and destroying? Whose lives matter most?” “We are still in the midst of this pandemic,” the man said. “We’ve lost seventeen deaths in our states.”
Seventeen deaths, most of who we would have grieved over anyways even if the coronavirus had never surfaced. Seventeen tragic deaths by which we are now justifying the purposeful demise of every other Montanan. Seventeen deaths … but what about the thirty-eight deaths on our highways this year? Literally, twice the number. And yet … we aren’t saying that we must stop driving. I wonder how many car crashes are due to the fact that people passed out wearing masks in their cars?
They went through why they would pass their list of rules, and then they allowed for public comment.
“We just ask that everyone wipe down the podium with the Lysol wipes before returning to their seat.”I was appalled that nearly ever person complied.
I stood to deliver my public comment, in the form of three questions. I did not use the wipes and had an answer prepared, but never got to use, “My hands don’t mix well with chemicals.”
“Was this meeting announced publicly? If so where? Most of the people here, including myself, have stated that they did not hear about it until yesterday.”
“What jurisdiction does the Health Department have to pass laws over the people?”
“Can you explain some of the language in your document and that you’ve already used? You said that 5,000 essential workers’ sicknesses and 100 deaths have been linked to the virus. What do you mean by linked? And you stated that these are merely rules, advice, and suggestions. But if that is the case, why are there charges for not complying?”
Others rose and said: “I am a small business owner and can’t afford to keep my business open seating only ten people.”
“I am one of those at risk. I am immune-compromised. I can’t even use these wipes because of my skin sensitivities, and because of my health, my doctor has told me I can not wear a mask. By flattening the curve you are extending the possibility of my death. You are not allowing for herd immunity to build. Please, let allow the rest of the world to be healthy so I have less chance of contracting the virus from them.”
“I appreciate how you all have been thorough and thoughtful. I do no appreciate being protected as I watch our young people suffer,” ~ elderly person.
“You are saying, ‘I advise you, and if you don’t accept my advice you go to jail.”
“Our hard of hearing have lost their way to communicate due to masks.”
“I am here to represent our sports. Not the economical, superficial side, but the side that matters. Our health. Because of the extension of these rules, there will be long-standing ramifications. Our bodies are deteriorating by staying home. By making us stay home, you are saying our health doesn’t matter.”
“Do you deem self-defense as non-essential? We want women to be safe. We are leaving a huge swath of people vulnerable.” ~ a man.
“Your gloves are on, your jaws set. Do you even hear us?”
“People are forgetting how to socialize.”
“Our constitution wasn’t meant to be shifting sand, but solid.”
“You are encouraging people to rat on each other. We already had too much of that.”
“The breath was just returning to our towns. People need to breathe again.”
“The masks are terrifying my child. I understand you can condition children. But I refuse to do that.”
“I am a holistic health practitioner. I have seen an uptake of people needing health due to mental health. Our #1 killer has always been heart disease. That we can control, but what are you doing?”
One couple got up, very angry, and asked the health board if they’d read all forty-three of the comments sent the previous day by the public. One lady at once said yes. Another was about to answer, when the woman in charge stopped it and said, “We are not entitled to answer you. You may offer public comment. We will answer what we can at the end.”
“Ok, I’ll take that as a no then,” the man said, then proceeded to try to read the comments online. But he was stopped and told to leave. He came to offer more comments twice more, and both times the woman in charger grew angry and threatened to call security.
Another stood, and another, and another.
“This is all a joke. Vote no.”
“We did not elect you. You have no authority over us.”
“These standards are not healthy.”
The board then spent time justifying their bill and answering some of our questions. They said that they had no jurisdiction, per se. But that they had the responsibility to protect the health of our county and that they could not make rules less stringent that our governor’s. And yes, the governor wasn’t as detailed as they had been, but they were trying to interpret the governor’s intentions.
“No matter what we do, somebody will be upset,” they said.
“Noone has been cited yet, so I don’t know why you all are worried about that section.”
(Violators face up to $500 fines, 90 days jail time, and a misdemeanor on the record.)
“The language is very specific. These are guidelines, not regulations.”
They offered further public comment, so I stood once more.
First, I asked for expansion on something they’d said that they were seeking approval for; an I&Q (isolation and quarantine) holding place for people who were sick or possibly sick. They never answered that question.
And then I asked, “You say you have no jurisdiction. You say you can’t write up anything less stringent than the governor, and that you have a responsibility. So why not just write up the guidelines and leave out the enforcement section?”
They spoke in circles, not giving good reasons, somehow ignoring all of our complaints.
But maybe they had a point when they said that no matter what they did someone would be upset.
The heart of our issue can be fully seen in this common complaint I heard from many that day.
“I am a wedding event planner. I know how to safely have parties and weddings. We should not be grouped with music festivals. We are, at most 200 people, not thousands.”
And the reply? “It’s an event of togetherness. At weddings, you are even more social than at music festivals. Everyone is hugging and kissing and dancing. There is alcohol. There is no social distancing.”
The mistake I saw?
People coming and said, “My rights are being violated.”
People saying, “I should not be compared to them.”
People saying, “You should do something. But not about me.”
People yelling, “You don’t understand my perspective. My life is at risk, my livelihood, my dreams.”
But who cares about the rest of the world.
We did not present a group of unified people willing to stand for everyone’s freedoms, but a bunch of individuals begging for their own rights.
“No matter what we do,” the board said. “Somebody will be upset.”
Nevermind that they had no authority to do anything whatsoever. Nevermind that that they had no right to do anything. Nevermind that they should be dictating neither weddings nor music festivals. Nevermind that they can’t give misdemeanors, that the police are our public protectors, not their enforcers.
But that day we forgot that and we allowed them to have the rule over us, even though they publicly admitted to us that they had absolutely no jurisdiction.
100% of the world matters. The 3% or less at risk and the 97% being forced to spoil away for the 3% sakes.
As one person said, “We need to breathe again. Let us breathe.”As one person said, “Let us work.”As one person said, “The rest of us matter, too.”
Exactly. Except … They don’t determine if or how you breathe. And you should be securing not only your own breath but that of every other person around you. They don’t determine if you get to work or not. If enough of us would simply shove away our fears and throw away our licenses, they would have no more leeway over your jobs. It is your right to work. Yes, all of us matter. So start acting like it by standing with your neighbors for their rights, too.
We don’t only want the return of our small weddings, we want our music festivals, and our sport events, and our restaurants, and our everything.
Even so, mistake or not, the health board had no jurisdiction. So let’s return the focus there. Even as we displayed a mixed bag of virtues and sins, they were out of place. And one of them knew this. There were many on the board who were attending via Zoom. Together, there were a little over ten individuals.
Only one voted no.
The only one heard what we said, and acted accordingly. “We do need to move forward in opening our State, but I vote no because of the enforcement section.”
He continued, “Yes, we have ninety-day expirations for our orders, but it’s starting to concern me how easily we are renewing these. For how many “ninety-days” will this all continue? This is not our place.”
But he was only one man. The health board read their list of rules, endured through our public comments, then voted on their bill and passed it by a majority. Since when might a group of people do such a thing?
Whose voices have you been hearing? Which injustices are you standing up against? And yes, even as we all help, it’s important to remember to pray for our country and the entire world.