Last week when I featured the psychologist who had predicted we humans would veer off-kilter in a pandemic, he said the one thing he hadn’t foreseen is how much the public health effort would get bizarrely undermined from the top down.

This stubborn failure of political leadership continues today. There was another glaring example of it this past week in the Tri-Cities region.

I keep focusing on the Tri-Cities, in Central Washington, because it has been a hot spot for coronavirus as well as for political psychodrama. On cue, the congressman there, Rep. Dan Newhouse, has picked the peak of a local surge to plunge into the pandemic culture wars by co-sponsoring a new bill called the “Masks Off Act.”

The bill is like a totem for our time. Introduced as schools have been struggling to get back to full-time in-person learning, it seeks not to bolster the overall public health effort, but to reward parents, in taxpayer dollars, who are fleeing from it.

Riding the anti-mask protests, it proposes to give parents grants, up to the per-pupil amount that the government pays for public education, so they can pull their student from any school that has a mask requirement and send them to one that doesn’t.

In this state that’s going to be tricky because private schools are supposed to be masking up, too. But the money could be used as well for hiring private, and presumably maskless, tutors or instructors. In Washington, the average per-student cost is about $13,000 annually, though it varies widely by school.

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“Equipping families to make their own choices is the only way forward,” Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, said in a news release Wednesday.

The very next day though, health officials in the Tri-Cities, which Newhouse represents, announced that 29% of all COVID cases in the area are among children.

“We are seeing a significant increase in cases in our school-aged children,” said Dr. Amy Person of the Benton-Franklin Health District. She said the schools were doing a decent job of controlling this spread, as many of the cases started outside school. But still there had been confirmed outbreaks at two schools, and six other potential school outbreaks were under investigation.

Kids aged 5 to 19 there now have a case rate north of 1,200 per 100,000, and even more worrisome, they are replacing young adults as the primary drivers of the area’s contagion.

So Dr. Person begged, for the umpteenth time in 19 months, for people to please wear masks, get vaccinated and limit indoor gatherings. Recently the mayors of the three cities, along with doctors and the heads of the local hospitals, co-signed an effort called “Any Two Will Do” that pleaded with recalcitrant local residents to do just two of those three pandemic strategies.

“Our counties are in crisis with COVID raging through our community,” the letter says. “It is time for everyone to do whatever they can to stop the spread. Everyone.”

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Everyone? The congressman who represents the region is out with the exact opposite message!

The “Masks Off Act” not only undermines this plea right in its name, it proposes to shift taxpayer resources out of one of the core institutions — schools — on the front lines of the battle. And it would give that money to people who not only aren’t doing whatever they can to stop the spread, but are throwing a fit over the relatively mild request to wear masks as a way to try to keep the schools open.

It’s like a voucher of irresponsibility. Proposed in communities that are still only about 40% vaccinated.

This bill won’t pass (I think?), as its main purpose in life is to pander to the crowds who have been out screaming at school boards. But when the histories of the great pandemic of 2020-2021 are written, the longest chapter ought to be devoted, as the psychologist recommends, to our strange and enduring leadership dysfunction.

Any two will do, the doctors beg. Nope, the politician responds: Masks off! We’ll even pay you not to do your part. Incredible.

*****

There’s a dramatic update to another culture war story, one I covered last year up on Lopez Island. Readers may recall that “The Friendly Isle” briefly erupted into “vitriol, suspicion and hate” after a local resident mowed down some Black Lives Matter signs with his flail mower.

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“I don’t want to go home to Lopez Island every night and see Black Lives Matter and have it shoved down my throat,” Dwight Lewis, 79, a longtime farmer on the island, had said at the time. He added that he was mad that his Trump sign had been defaced.

“It’s like our own Charlottesville,” one resident had said then.

Fast-forward a year, and Lewis has been convicted of malicious mischief and reckless endangerment. At his sentencing this past week, the judge gave a 40-minute stemwinder on how the case had become a microcosm of the ways America is cracking apart.

“We’ve got to get away in this country from the idea that we have two ships passing in the night and they never communicate with each other,” Judge Alan Hancock said. “I would like to see people sit down and talk about their feelings, their motivations, why they believe what they do … maybe then there could be some sort of restoration of community spirit on Lopez Island.”

He said he contemplated the unusual step of “ordering Mr. Lewis to have a cup of coffee” with the sign people. But, he then added in despair: “I’m not sure people in our country are interested anymore in even determining what the facts really are.”

Frustrated, he ended up sentencing Lewis to 15 days in jail along with a no-contact order between Lewis and an islander he’d threatened with his mower.

Concluded the judge, in what sounded like a sort of eulogy for a lost age: “This is the island where everybody waves to each other! … I hope, I hope this is still the case today.”