The wearing of cloth face masks has been recommended by public health experts and elected leaders across the country, but in Lebanon County support for this measure has been limited from local politicians.
In fact, some elected officials – namely state Representative Russ Diamond (R-102) – have publicly boasted about not wearing masks. When Representative Diamond became embroiled in a controversy last month regarding the House Republican Caucus’ non-disclosure of a GOP legislator who had tested positive for COVID-19, Diamond notably refused to say whether he had been wearing a mask while conducting errands around Lebanon County before he was aware of the potential exposure. (After being informed of the exposure, Diamond subsequently fulfilled the self-quarantine period as recommended by the Department of Health.)
“When town gossip results in the COVID-era equivalent of a scarlet letter, things have gone too far,” said Diamond in an email to LebTown at the time. “If this is Tom Wolf’s ‘new normal,’ I want no part of it. People should go back to minding their own damned business.”
Diamond, along with fellow Lebanon County GOP elected officials state Senator Dave Arnold (R-48), state Representative Frank Ryan (R-101), and County Commissioners Bill Ames (R) and Bob Phillips (R), all appeared at a rally for Taste of Sicily earlier this month, with many of the speeches focusing on the importance of personal freedom. None wore masks, and only Commissioner Phillips could be seen with a face covering visible during the 50 minute livestream posted to Facebook by the PA Senate GOP committee.
And yet – there’s a growing consensus that the wearing of cloth face masks is an effective measure to slow the spread of COVID-19.
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who was successfully nominated by President Donald J. Trump in 2017, took to Twitter this weekend to make an argument for wearing masks that was actually itself based on personal freedom.
Adams’ opinion on mask wearing did notably change since the early days of the pandemic, one of many examples these past few months of inconsistent and shifting governmental messaging eliciting skepticism and distrust in the official response. In past editorials, LebTown has addressed the administration of Governor Tom Wolf for its role in creating an environment where “fake news” could profligate. State Senator Arnold and Diamond have both notably pushed a conspiracy theory that the wearing of masks is not required by the state, when in fact it is. Although the legality of the Gov. Wolf’s executive orders has been questioned, there is no judicial basis to suggest that they have been proven illegal – and no evidence whatsoever that the guidelines were secretly changed as Diamond has previously argued.
Medical authorities across the board – with the exception of occasional viral “real talk” posts from medical experts of questionable repute, which tend to spread like wildfire on social platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube – are consistent in their messaging that the recommending or requiring of cloth face coverings by the public is a smart policy move.
The CDC specifically recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, and especially in areas where there appears to be community spread.
These recommendations are backed by a growing scientific consensus, based on data from this very pandemic, that the wearing of masks works as a measure to slow the spread of COVID-19.
- Widespread facemask use could shrink the ‘R’ number and prevent a second COVID-19 wave – study
- Face Masks Considerably Reduce COVID-19 Cases in Germany: A Synthetic Control Method Approach
- Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19
- A modelling framework to assess the likely effectiveness of facemasks in combination with ‘lock-down’ in managing the COVID-19 pandemic
Other research has suggested that “the desire for widespread masking is a reflexive reaction to anxiety over the pandemic” but notes as well that “there may be additional benefits to broad masking policies that extend beyond their technical contribution to reducing pathogen transmission.” A study conducted in Italy earlier this year showed that masks help promote social distancing efforts.
Earlier this week, LebTown reached out to elected officials representing Lebanon County seeking their response to the following question:
Do you believe that Lebanon Countians should follow CDC guidelines to wear a cloth face covering when in public?
LebTown heard back from both U.S. Senators for Pennsylvania, as well as Lebanon County’s representative in the U.S. House. But local GOP leaders were conspicuously silent on the matter.
The following elected officials provided no response to LebTown’s multiple requests for comment.
- State Senator Dave Arnold
- State Representative Russ Diamond
- State Representative Sue Helm
- State Representative Frank Ryan
- County Commissioner Bob Phillips
- County Commissioner Bill Ames
- Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello
“I think we are going to sit this one out,” said Arnold’s chief of staff, Greg Moreland, in response to LebTown’s followup. But with the velocity of Lebanon County’s case growth and hospitalizations having seen an uptick in the past weeks and public confusion and skepticism about the mask wearing policy widespread locally, the longterm stakes of sitting this one out – or going further and stoking the embers of distrust – could be significant indeed.
Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) was the first member of Congress to publicly call on the CDC to update its guidelines to encourage people to wear masks, noted a Toomey staff member in an email to LebTown.
“(Senator Toomey) believes Pennsylvanians should wear them when they venture out because ‘my mask protects you and your mask protects me,'” said Toomey staffer Steve Kelly.
Senator Toomey’s equal across the aisle, Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), echoed his peer’s comments.
“Public health experts continue to recommend mask-wearing in public, and ongoing research continues to support that recommendation,” said Senator Casey through a spokesperson in an email to LebTown.
“It is important that Lebanon County residents and all Pennsylvanians heed this advice.”
Casey acknowledged the new CDC data that showed Pennsylvania as one of just three states that has had a downward trajectory of COVID-19 cases for more than 42 days.
“That is because Pennsylvanians have made great efforts to follow CDC guidelines, including wearing masks, socially distancing, and washing hands frequently,” said Casey. “I encourage everyone to continue to follow these guidelines to reduce new COVID-19 cases and flatten the curve.”
“We can all do our part to protect our communities against the spread of COVID-19,” said Congressman Dan Meuser (PA-09) through a spokesperson in an email to LebTown. “I encourage everyone to follow CDC guidelines which recommend wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
“We need to abide by these safety standards to assure that there is no reason for any future slowdown or shutdown of our economy.”
Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz (D) has supported local mask wearing through an initiative, “Women Working Behind the Scenes,” along with co-chair Sharon Zook, who together with other volunteers have produced more than 8,000 cloth face coverings for the local community. Their effort was recently recognized by Senator Casey, who commended their efforts to provide masks to those who needed them.
“When you wear a mask, I feel valued and respected,” said Commissioner Litz. “I want to do the same for you. Your life is worth it.”
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Full Disclosure: The campaigns of Bill Ames, Dave Arnold, Bob Phillips, and Jo Ellen Litz were advertisers on LebTown during previous election cycles. WellSpan Health, Ames Home Services, and the campaign of Frank Ryan is a current advertiser on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.
This article was updated on June 20 to reference a couple more studies which address the benefit of masks from a symbolic perspective.