World Events

To end COVID, Californians can’t ignore anti-maskers forever

Blaine D. Pope didn’t plan to go viral. He had just planned to go home and make a peanut butter sandwich.

But that was before the mild-mannered professor arrived at his daughter’s school in Santa Monica one afternoon this week and found a group of anti-maskers waving signs and shouting conspiracy theories at parents and students.

You know the type. Those who claim — falsely — that COVID-19 is “the same as the flu” and that anyone who wears a mask or agrees to get vaccinated has been “indoctrinated” by a mysterious “they.”

Most people in Pope’s position would’ve just driven away, maybe rolling down the window to shout a curse word or two in the process, but still following some internet elder’s sage advice to not feed the trolls.

Pope, who has been teaching business at Cal State Northridge, but has a background working in public health, didn’t drive off. Instead, for nearly 20 minutes, he and his 11-year-old daughter had what can only be described as an extraordinarily calm and even earnest conversation with a couple of men intent on casting doubt on everything from the death toll due to COVID-19 to the existence of climate change.

“Quite honestly, if it hadn’t been for my daughter’s request” to get a closer look at the demonstrators, Pope told me later, “I would’ve just gone the heck back home and made a sandwich.”

But he stayed, gamely asking one man carrying a “Masks R A Compliance Check” sign: “What’s the real issue here?”

“Freedom, brother,” the man told Pope, who is Black. Then he waved a hand over his pale, bare face, indicating where a mask would go. “This is a form of slavery.”

That this civil conversation, captured on video by a reporter with the Beverly Hills Courier, was abnormal enough to go viral on Twitter says a lot about just how normal the divisions in this country have become. It also speaks to the abnormal efforts that will be required to persuade more Americans — particularly the COVID-19 skeptics among us — to get vaccinated.

In short, truly bringing the pandemic to a close will require at least some of us with brains to argue — I’m sorry, have calm and reasoned conversations — with willful idiots.

I realize that might not seem necessary right now. After all, hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 are nearing record lows across California. And this week, public health officials cleared Los Angeles County to reopen much of its economy, loosening restrictions on bars, movie theaters and amusement parks. Many other counties are on the verge of doing the same.

Meanwhile, nationally, about 45% of the population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In California, the rate is even higher, at just above 50%.

And, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases of COVID-19 are likely to drop dramatically by the end of July and will continue to fall afterward, even as the coronavirus continues to circulate — and new variants emerge — with horrifyingly deadly consequences in other parts of the world.

But lost in all of the happy talk of an American reopening is the caveat that, in order for it to become reality, people have to keep wearing masks in close quarters and, most important, more people have to get vaccinated.

President Biden said this week that he wants 70% of American adults to have received at least one dose by the Fourth of July. But vaccination rates continue to fall and tens of millions of Americans say they are still wary of getting the jab, meaning the task now is convincing the uninterested, the hesitant and the flat-out resistant.

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In some corners of Los Angeles, doctors have been doing some version of this for weeks, especially after federal officials temporarily halted the distribution of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine to investigate reports of a rare but serious blood clotting disorder.

For example, Jasmine Morataya, a physician assistant who helps run the vaccination site at Kedren Community Health Center in South L.A., said she has spent a lot of time answering questions from people who are far from being conspiracy theorists, but are worried about possible side effects.

“All you’re trying to do is educate people and let them make the choices,” she said, “because, at the end of the day, it’s their body.”

In general, research has shown that the best strategy for persuading people to get vaccinated is to enlist trusted sources, such as pastors and doctors, to answer questions and provide factual information. I can only assume this is why the CDC brought in characters from “Sesame Street” for a series of new pro-vaccine ads. Because, you know, who doesn’t trust Elmo?

Non-Muppets are another matter.

“I get it,” Pope told me. “People are tired of this crap from these idiots who just can’t seem to let it soak in, read the science, be logical, be rational.”

After enduring years of a polarized, straight-up toxic political climate, most people have run out of patience to tolerate people with different opinions. But that is exactly why Pope said he acquiesced to his daughter’s wish to talk to the anti-maskers. He wanted her to understand what so many of us seem to have forgotten how to do — or have just become unwilling to do.

“I think that’s an important ethical question,” he said. “There are people like this out there, and you’ll have to interact with them. So the question is, what tone do you take with them if you want to engage with them? It doesn’t have to be a shouting match.”

He said he told her that “all these things you’re learning in school right now, issues of ethics, morality, climate change, history, math. All of that is to enable you to engage in critical thinking skills you need to interact with people like this because you’ll come across people like this in your life.”

Pope acknowledges that the anti-maskers waving signs the other afternoon were there to “flog propaganda” and to “create doubt” with their proselytizing of falsehoods to the students and parents of Santa Monica.

“But I do believe that, as human beings,” he said, “some of these people will go to bed at night wondering just what it was what that Black doctor guy was really trying to say.”

That’s the plan anyway. Plan B is still that peanut butter sandwich.

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