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Mask on, mask off: Stevensville speaks from both sides of the mask

Mask on, mask off: Stevensville speaks from both sides of the mask

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STEVENSVILLE — A pop-up mask vendor alongside Highway 93 on Wednesday had almost every design signaling its place in rural America, with a few fishing styles and several stocked with the John Deere logo.

Opal Bye, who makes the masks and sells them for $5 a pop, said business has been good, although she didn't quite have it all. She said a few would-be customers were disappointed she hadn't styled any masks with President Donald Trump's image or that of the Confederate Flag.

"I don't want to get political," Bye said. "I just think we need to have common sense, but it's everybody's choice if you want to wear a mask or not."

The sentiment resonates this week in Ravalli County, where elected officials have given businesses carte blanche in their decisions to enforce the governor's July 15 statewide mask mandate. The mandate was made a week ago after confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to fester across the state. The state had 1,147 active cases at the time and by Wednesday had 1,228 active cases. Ravalli County on Wednesday had 10 active cases by the state's tally, putting the county in a category of four or more active cases, required to abide by the mandate.

Nationwide, face masks have become a dividing line on the battleground between public health and personal freedoms. When Ravalli County's commissioners and sheriff said last week businesses "may" enforce the governor's mask mandate, the county health officer resigned because the elected officials issued their decision without the health expert's input. In Stevensville, the local pizza joint, Kodiak Jax, has put up on its letterboard: "We live in the USA, not China, take back our gov."

The town's main street is at least labeled well with those businesses which require masks and those that do not.

At Morning Star Caffeine and Cuisine, owner Valerie Hixon said Wednesday she has had a small handful of complaints for not requiring masks, but dozens of customers who have thanked her for not pushing masks on people. Hixon said she still allows customers and employees to wear masks if they choose, and will still offer food and drinks for curbside pickup if the customer feels safer that way.

"I respect that," she said during a bustling lunch hour on Wednesday. "And I expect them to respect me, too."

The vulnerable are not lost on Hixon; her husband has become immuno-compromised due to cancer. But does she worry about tracking COVID-19 into the house with her when she's done at the coffee shop?

"We're just not the fearful type," she said. "If he gets it, it's up to God to take care of him."

Hixon said a group of business owners have been gathering to figure out what's best for themselves. Ultimately, she said not bowing to the mask mandate means upholding her constitutional rights.

But which rights are those? Hixon admits she still doesn’t have a full grasp on which parts of the Constitution bolsters her liberties during a public health pandemic, but is eager to stake out more ground on that side of the mask mandate. 

"I'll be honest, I don't know what all my rights are," Hixon said. "I'm interested in learning more about upholding that (the Constitution)."

***

"The 14th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution says that no state shall deprive any individual of life, liberty and property without due process of law," said Anthony Johnstone, constitutional law professor at the University of Montana. "Today we tend to see those sorts of arguments to vindicate rights to same sex marriage, abortion, civil liberties, etcetera."

In general, Americans have always depended on their governments to protect the public health, safety and welfare of the public, Johnstone said. The law professor said the Montana constitution and state Legislature have authorized both the governor and local governments to take steps to protect public health, including broad emergency powers in order to do so.

In general, however, it's up to local authorities to enforce these directives, Johnstone said. 

"Enforcement of these mask rules is not going to come down to a police officer writing a ticket for not wearing a mask, it's going to come down to the county health authorities pulling business licenses to protect the public health, safety and welfare," Johnstone said.

Masks are far less intrusive than the inoculations that came with small pox and the influenza outbreak in 1918. The constitutional argument against masks doesn't hold much water in Johnstone's opinion, as it's more akin to fighting a smoking ban that's intended to protect the public rather than trying to protect people from themselves. As long as the government's response to the pandemic is even handed, like saying all businesses must require masks, not just one of several industries, then the government is not discriminating on any individual rights.

"Our Constitution is law, it has content, it is not whatever you want to think it is," Johnstone said. "It is law and although there are grey areas, there are relatively clear answers in this area. I think anyone who takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, as I do as a lawyer, as new citizens do, need to understand that it is law and not just a cover for whatever personal or political views they may have."

***

For others, it's less about the Constitution and more about business. Asked Wednesday why Stevensville Hardware decided not to enforce masks, manager Dave Reyes said "the increase in business." The store gets more customers by not requiring a mask, he said. As an essential service, the store never shut down in the early days of the pandemic, and it didn't ask customers to wear masks then, either.

"I think we're all adult enough to do what we need for ourselves," Reyes said.

A few doors down, River's Mist Gallery and Fine Art Owner Gretchen Spiess said one woman threw a fit when they asked her to put on a mask provided at the front door. The woman disagreed with the requirement and left.

"I said, 'fine,' I have no problem with that," Spiess said. 

River's Mist is an artists' cooperative, and several are of the 60-plus age range designated high-risk for infection, said Diane Olhoeft, one of the artists in the shop on Wednesday.

"For me, it makes perfect sense," Olhoeft said. "I worked in a hospital for 35 years. Whenever I'm with someone who has pneumonia, I would wear a mask."

Spiess said the elected officials' decision to give businesses a choice in enforcing the mask mandate was "no surprise." But she's glad Bullock issued the mandate all the same, even wishing he had done so three months ago.

"It's uncomfortable, so what?" Spiess said. "It's a very small price to pay."

Another couple doors down Main Street and Chuck Jenne, 89, is peeking out between the red bandanna covering his face and his Korean War veteran's cap as he sits down at an outside table for his daily coffee. He was quarantined for two months back in the 1940s — the first month for when his brother got the chicken pox and the second month when his own infection reared up.

"I think everybody should be thoughtful of people and keep from infecting anyone or being infected," he said. "Or doing what they can do."

Jenne is going to hold on to masking himself up when he leaves the house ("I gotta have coffee," he said) but, like Bye, believes people can be left up to their own devices. Ravalli County has still had a relatively small share of the coronavirus' spread, 51 of the 2,813 confirmed cases since the pandemic began. 

"I think that's their privilege," Jenne said. "I don't believe they should be forced, but I think the public should be smart enough to do what they can to curb it.

"Maybe that's wishful thinking."

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