I have a Canadian friend who loves to heckle me about how the founding story of America — the revolution of 1776 — was actually unnecessary.
Canada is proof, he says.
“You could have just sat and waited it out, like we did,” he boasts. “You could have won independence from the British without firing a shot.”
His point — put in a way I’d never considered — is that America is deeply in love with its own rebelliousness. It’s not only our origin story, it’s baked into our modern politics and culture. We’re not part of your system, anybody’s system, we like to say.
I bring this up because it’s starting to look like maybe societywide we’re not all that suited to the rule following that’s being asked of us to fend off the coronavirus.
Take, as just one small example, Spokane.
That Eastern Washington city had so few cases of COVID-19 back in early May that it has been allowed to reopen for business. At one time a few weeks ago, Spokane had three days in which the number of new cases had dropped to zero.
So some bars, restaurants and other stores opened last Friday — though not until after the public health officer had issued a countywide directive that everyone ought to wear masks.
How’d that go?
“People are packed in, shoulder to shoulder, hugging and overflowing out into the street. What the heck?” observed a staffer for KXLY, a Spokane TV station.
“So few guys wearing masks in stores in Spokane, I still assume they’re coming in to rob the place,” one local wrote on Twitter.
This week, that public health officer, Bob Lutz, nearly broke into tears at a news conference as he implored Spokaners to please mask up. He was there announcing that unfortunately Spokane is seeing a big spike in new cases (related mostly to an outbreak at a macaroni company, not to the reopening — it’s too soon to know how that’s working).
Wearing masks in stores “is a selfless act of kindness, to those who are serving you,” pleaded Lutz, his voice cracking. “This is what public health is all about.”
Yeah, but … kind of sounds like you want people to be part of some system.
“I’m in Spokane. I love all the rebels here,” rejoined another local on social media. “Don’t see many masks and I avoid any place that mandates them.”
One such rebel, who worked at the above-mentioned macaroni company, was told to self-quarantine after he tested positive for COVID-19. He refused. He was shortly arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving — he had five others in the car with him — and now six Spokane police officers who had contact with him are themselves in quarantine.
Officials say these hiccups are not representative — the first night bar scene was only a case of “over exuberance” — while the Spokane mayor gave her city a “B+” for following the new paradigm. A columnist for The Spokesman-Review, though, had predicted there might be some eruptions of the American essential nature.
“Phase 2 is no bacchanal,” wrote Shawn Vestal, using the state’s term for where Spokane is in the four-phase reopening process. “It relies on cautious, burdensome measures to protect safety … (it’s not) haircuts and hugs and free shots for everyone.”
None of this is unique to Spokane (well, except maybe for the drunk macaroni COVID rebel). There’s plenty of mask avoidance going on in stores around Seattle, too. Plus some afternoons the shores of Lake Washington have been as packed as Ibiza.
But there’s also something completely on-brand going on. Where else but America boasts the brilliance of the premier scientists, but also the instinctual brashness to ignore whatever it is they’re saying?
Now signs have started going up in some bars and restaurants around the country that specifically forbid the wearing of masks. It’s as if we have a primal need to rebel, even against something as trivial as covering your mouth and nose.
My Canadian friend, the American Revolution skeptic, lives in B.C., so I looked up how that province is faring with the coronavirus. They are our direct neighbors here in Washington state, yet we have a case rate more than five times higher, along with 940 more deaths.
Coincidence, maybe. Or maybe they’re just better than we are at sitting and waiting things out.