A year later, how people feel about pandemic policies -- and why they feel that way
When North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper issued a statewide Emergency Declaration a year ago -- on March 10th, 2020 -- some residents called it overreach; some thought it good pandemic policy. Whether the broad-based business and school closures were necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19 is also a point of contention. WHQR’s Rachel Lewis Hilburn talks with some local residents about how they view the policies of the last year – and explores what a year’s worth of data reveals about what works.
Meet Daniel Mask. He’s a retired sales recruiter and a current balloon artist. You know, those twisty balloons that show up at kids’ parties?
DM: I love Christmas and St Patrick's day... It's a lot of fun. And I do a lot of leprechauns.
He left Charlotte and moved to Brunswick County near the end of 2020 because of the pandemic.
DM: There's a million people in Charlotte... There's only a hundred thousand or less here and it's not as dense.
Let’s be clear: his name, Daniel Mask, is real. And it conveniently reflects his beliefs about slowing the spread of Covid-19. He’s most definitely a mask-wearer. And last year, he just wasn’t comfortable with the behavior he saw around Charlotte.
DM: And it was pretty bad there, you know, a lot of millennials, people weren't wearing masks and not really taking care of themselves.
And when the Governor ordered many businesses to close, Mask says it had to be done.
DM: I mean, I suffered badly. I lost my business... I had a business that I built up for 12 years and I lost everything.
William Kramer retired to Brunswick County from New York in 2003. He says he’s fine with what he calls common sense measures, but the Governor’s decision to shut down bars and restaurants, gyms and movie theaters – that’s overreach.
WK: A lot of conservatives think that these governors are dictators and a lot of them act like it in many ways. They're going against actual law, you know, because most of these things that they're doing, they have emergency powers that lasts for 60 or 90 days. Well, they’re going on a year now.
Dr. Paul Kamitsuka is Chief Epidemiologist at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Because the body of research on Covid-19 continues to grow, he says scientists are learning more about what works. The United States, though, is an example of one of the worst handlers of the pandemic.
PK: We have had over 530,000 deaths, and, compare that to, for example, the country of Taiwan, which has twice the population of North Carolina and the total number of COVID deaths, at least as of a few days ago, is nine. So 9 vs. 530,000.
Dr. Kamitsuka says the countries that did well took the virus seriously from the beginning.
Taiwan, New Zealand, and South Korea, for example, put a high priority on testing – testing early and extensively -- something the U.S. did not do.
And if the US had done so, Kamitsuka suggests the decision to shut down businesses might not have been necessary.
PK: So long as there is a high degree of adherence to masking and distancing, you don't have to lock down.
William Kramer says he didn’t mind the Governor’s mask mandate when it was first announced. It was the closing of businesses he found -- and still finds -- draconian.
WK: You know, that was just pushing it a little bit too far... I wear a mask when I go out, when I go into the store. Outside in the air, I don't wear a mask. If I was in a concert and it was all outdoors, maybe I'd put it on just to make other people feel better, you know? But I follow it due to the fact that it makes other people feel safe. Me, I didn't really worry about catching it from somebody else.
Balloon artist Daniel Mask wears his mask everywhere. He considers Governor Cooper slow to mandate masks.
DM: He should have done it way earlier, way earlier. I was way ahead of him.
Mask double-masks now, based on the advice of the CDC.
NHRMC Chief Epidemiologist Paul Kamitsuka says there are good reasons current policy is different from early guidance from the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci.
PK: People like Anthony Fauci now feel at more liberty to say -- there was a long spell there where basically the scientists were shut out, and so they could not actually speak science.
And the other reason: as the body of research grows, so does the database. The CDC revises its recommendations when it gets better information.
PK: But I think it would be misguided to fault the CDC for seemingly changing their recommendations.
One thing that is clear, says Kamitsuka, is that this is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. And he worries about the states that are changing their policies.
PK: All it takes is a significant proportion of the population not doing the masking and distancing and for a virus as contagious as this one is. And the data suggests that it's getting more and more contagious.
Whatever the science, the conflicting and patchwork policies across the U.S. tend to fall along partisan political lines.
Just last week, on March 10th, the one-year anniversary of Governor Cooper’s statewide Emergency Order, Republican House Majority Leader John Bell filed a bill to limit the Governor’s emergency authority.
JB: The Governor has exercised absolute power by dictating what businesses can and cannot open, how schools can operate, and when and where people can gather. We all agree that the Covid-19 pandemic requires emergency action. But the current law that granted these emergency powers was simply not written with today’s challenges. There needs to be more bipartisan input and checks and balances.
The bill is now working its way through several committees.
So how do peoples’ political views shape their opinions about health policy?
Daniel Mask says he generally trusts mainstream news sources but he also seeks out primary sources.
DM: All news outlets, including yours, have an agenda.
He means NPR.
DM: I don't look at Fox anymore because they're crazy… I don’t do a whole lot of reading. I do Atlantic magazine, I read their stuff quite a bit. I read Washington Post. I read Wall Street [Journal] sometimes.
He used to watch MSNBC but decided they lean way too far left. William Kramer, though he leans Conservative, also seeks out a range of news sources – but he says he trusts Fox the most.
WK: I watch Fox News on TV. I've got Breitbart. I’ve got Newsmax. I have the New York Times. I have the Washington Post. I go to all of these sources. The only thing that I find is when you see the ones that are considered to be left-leaning, they don't cover both sides of the subject.
But none of this should be political, says Dr. Kamitsuka. The best way to stay informed, he says, is to seek out science-based reports.
PK: The one thing about science is that science is inherently not political... And if one simply adheres to the science, then you will do so much better in a situation like this.
Despite their divergent views on Covid policy, both William Kramer and Daniel Mask are glad to have received their Covid-19 vaccinations.
The shot, however, isn’t yet changing Daniel Mask’s behavior. He’s certainly not ready to go out to restaurants.
DM: God, no. No, no. We stopped restaurants because I don't trust what people put into the food… too many hands touching stuff. So we decided we're going to make our own food.
If William Kramer could make the policy for the state, he would open things up -- leaving the mask question and social distancing as decisions people make for themselves.
WK: I would probably go for opening just about everything up, stressing still social distancing, stressing -- hey, if you want to make other people feel good, wear a mask, but I'm not going to tell you to wear a mask. When your group comes up to be vaccinated, get vaccinated.
Daniel Mask worries about the variants, and Dr. Kamitsuka says it’s true -- that if people drop their guard too quickly, we could see another Covid spike.
But Kamitsuka does believe things could get back to normal this year – IF people keep their masks and their distance until most people have the shot.
PK: If we do a good job of really pushing the vaccines over the next couple of months, we may be only two or three months away from really having to emphasize masking anymore. That's a goal to shoot for.
Daniel Mask has his sights set on 2022, though, as the time when pandemic protocols might be less important. He plans to re-launch his balloon twisting business under a new name: Danny Boy Balloons. But he says he’ll probably always wear a mask.
DM: I will wear a mask forever because my name is Dan Mask.
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect Daniel Mask's former occupation as sales recruiter for Toshiba -- not, as incorrectly reported, copier salesman.
Mask also says he relied heavily on Johns Hopkins University and Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota for Covid-19 information.