Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on July 27, 2020
We are living in unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives. We are fighting a public health war as impactful to our country as we will ever see, short of a nuclear war.
In March, to fight the spread of the pandemic, schools were ordered to close, and education moved online. Businesses not part of our critical infrastructure were closed. People were asked to work from home to “flatten the curve,” so hospitals would not be overwhelmed.
After slowing the advance of the pandemic and sending the rate of infection down, a number of governors prematurely allowed some businesses to reopen, due to their concern about high unemployment and the adverse impact on the economy. To protect people from the virus, only some governors mandated the practice of social distancing and the wearing of masks to prevent the return of rising infection rates. Other governors and President Donald Trump issued no such mandate and politicized the issue.
Fueled by political leaders on the right and commentators in conservative news and opinion media, there are people who claim that wearing a mask and social distancing is a violation of their Constitutional rights. Trump has claimed it’s a matter of freedom. It’s interesting they don’t make the same claim about the mandatory use of seatbelts.
Our country was built on personal freedom and strong individualism. However, personal freedom and strong individualism come with responsibilities for our fellow citizens.
The politicized and doctrinaire views of some people have enabled the return of increasing infection rates in many states and the re-closing of some businesses, delaying the economic recovery and putting in jeopardy the opening of schools in September. People are getting sick and dying, and hospitals are being overwhelmed. This is not the time to be political.
Prior to July 21, Trump claimed that we are doing just fine in the fight against COVID-19. Compared to who?
A July 20 article in The Wall Street Journal is headlined, “How Europe kept Coronavirus cases low even after reopening.” The graphic in the article shows that after COVID-19 infections in both the U.S. and Europe peaked in April, both declined until the later part of May, when infections flattened. Europe stayed flat at a low level, but in June, infections in the U.S. spiked and continues to grow exponentially.
Why the difference between the U.S. and Europe? Europe did not allow businesses to prematurely open. People in Europe are wearing masks and practicing social distancing to a much greater extent than in the U.S. The difference is leadership. The pandemic in Europe has not been politicized.
Governors of states where the pandemic is spreading like wildfire have started to mandate the wearing of masks. Trump has changed his position. In a July 20 tweet, Trump wrote that “many people say that it is patriotic to wear a mask when you can’t socially distance,” but stopped short of mandating the wearing of masks.
In a July 21 news conference, Trump finally said, “[The pandemic] will … unfortunately get worse before it gets better. We’re asking everybody when you are not able to socially distance [to] wear a mask. Whether you like the mask or not, they have an impact…” Unfortunately, Trump didn’t say this months ago.
What leaders say or don’t say has a very strong influence on those they lead. Hopefully, Trump’s comments will encourage those who have not worn masks to start doing so.
On July 16, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia sued the mayor of Atlanta for imposing a mask mandate. On July 21, Kemp changed his position and asked all Georgians to commit to wearing a mask for four weeks.
A July 16 article in The Wall Street Journal is headlined, “Face Masks Really Do Matter. The Scientific Evidence Is Growing.” Quoting from the article, “Face masks are emerging as one of the most powerful weapons to fight the novel coronavirus, with growing evidence that facial coverings help prevent transmission—even if an infected wearer is in close contact with others.”
That same Wall Street Journal article quotes Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stating, “[if] we could get everybody to wear a mask right now,” the pandemic could be controlled within two months.
Leaders, you should do what is right, even if some of those you lead disagree. Convince them of the validity of your decisions. Think about the legacy you want to leave, and how history will judge you.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.