Ben Fields: Please wear a mask (Opinion)

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Ben Fields

Ben Fields

Gov. Jim Justice, in his Wednesday coronavirus briefing, appeared at his most passionate when he uttered the phrase, “Please, please, please wear a mask.”

I’m not sure I got the right amount of pleases in there, but you get the gist. This was as Justice was discussing new outbreaks of COVID-19 throughout West Virginia, mostly linked to church services where, I can only guess, people were not practicing proper social distancing or wearing masks. Shortly thereafter, state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh reiterated the link in new outbreaks to reopened social gatherings, such as church services.

I can’t say what is happening around the state at every indoor facility, be it a church or a grocery store. I can only comment on what I see around me, and that’s basically a lot of inconsistency.

In numerous columns now, I’ve outlined the health concern going on in my own household, which has mandated that I be very cautious in public places. It has differed as to which businesses or gathering places are monitoring how many people are going in, how closely they’re protecting their own folks and how they’re trying to enforce social distancing and sanitary conditions.

I have noticed a general trend in my part of Charleston as to how people have reacted to this unprecedented situation. It seems like preparations were lacking at first, and there wasn’t a whole lot of public concern. By late March and through April, of course, schools, many businesses, events and activities were shut down. Going out in public during that period, at least at the places I had to go, I noticed people were being careful. Almost everyone was wearing some type of mask or cloth over their face and keeping their distance. This bled into May, as well.

Then, the weather turned nice and, absent a massive death toll, it seemed large groups of people decided that the crisis had essentially passed. Either that, or they decided that wearing a mask somehow didn’t jive with a certain political identity. West Virginia began reopening, and continues to relax restrictions on gatherings, events and activities, such as youth sports.

I understand the wish to get life back to normal. I understand chafing against staying home or wearing protective equipment for a threat that’s hard to see or comprehend, as far as personal impact goes. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work from home, but I understand others haven’t been as lucky and want — or need — to get back to work.

I also understand Gov. Justice’s statement that he can’t mandate people wear masks in public, although perhaps for different reasons. He certainly could try to mandate it. Maybe he even should. But, honestly, how is that going to be enforced by the state government? It might be what’s best for everyone, but is it even legal to hand down such a mandate?

When it comes to protecting our own health and the health of others in this place and time, it’s not something that can be solved by the state or federal governments. They can only aid and advise. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on each business, church or event organizer. It falls on us as individuals.

If you don’t want to wear a mask, if you don’t want to keep your distance, that’s up to you. But don’t put someone else at risk because of your decision. Don’t go out where there are large gatherings. We all have rights, legal and social, and it has always been understood that our rights extend only to the point where they infringe on someone else’s. Don’t be responsible for an illness or, God forbid, a death, whether it be in your house or the house of a stranger, because putting a cloth around your face annoys you.

This is all very real, and it’s not something to take lightly. And no matter what we’d like to believe, it’s not over. Most importantly, while progress is made on medical treatments and a vaccine, it’s something that is preventable. If you know there are ways to keep yourself or others from getting ill, why wouldn’t you practice them?

Be good to yourself and love your neighbor. Wear a mask.

Ben Fields is the Gazette-Mail opinion editor. Reach him at or follow @BenFieldsWV on Twitter.

Funerals for Saturday, July 4, 2020

Hinzman, Mary - 3 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.

Payne, Gregory - Noon, Brookside Ministries, Mt. Carbon.

Spaur, Annette - 1 p.m., John H. Taylor Funeral Home, Spencer.