To mask, or not to mask? Considering the new reality we're living, it shouldn't even be a question. I'm proud to say, most of us locals seem to be following the rule we're seeing on signs that have popped up all over town to MASK UP, HATTIESBURG. (I know I do.) Of course, wearing a face mask when we leave home is just another manifestation of the COVID-19 pandemic, as if there weren't enough.
On those occasions when I leave home which, I must say, occur far less frequently than, say, five months ago, my "Did I forget anything" list has grown. Not long ago, my main concern was, "Oh shoot, I forgot my wallet." How many times has that happened to you guys? I've often wondered, do the ladies sometimes realize they've forgotten their purses, as they head out in the car? (I imagine a purse is a lot harder to forget.)
I was among the last people in America to bite the bullet and purchase a cellphone. My friends will tell you, I hated the things, even made fun of people who had them. That all changed when I drove to Los Angeles, back in 2016. I bought a cell phone for my cross-country drive, in case of a roadside emergency, swearing I'd ditch that goofy Samsung the minute I returned safely to Hattiesburg. (I'm now on my second one.) So, there ya go. My cellphone, another something to worry about leaving at the house. By now, you've figured where I'm heading with this?
Wallet? Check. In my back pocket. Cellphone, there it is, in my front pocket. And, as I drive off, on my way to Corner Market, realize … oh, no! I forgot my mask! (Not to worry, I've learned to keep a spare in the car.)
Oh, those masks. They've become a part of our daily routines, that is, if we're venturing out onto the streets of Hattiesburg. Lots of people shun the idea of wearing them. In fact, mask-wearing has become the latest hot-button political issue. You can almost predict a person's political persuasion based on their willingness to mask up. Conventional wisdom suggests Republicans are less likely to wear a mask in public than Democrats. I'm glad to say though, based on my local observations, that doesn't seem to be as true here in the Hub City. Politics appear to have a lot less to do with who masks up and who doesn't in our town. That's a good thing.
I'll admit, while driving, which I most often do alone, I don't wear my mask. But I do keep it on the front seat, to don whenever I enter a place of business. Lots of people complain wearing a mask makes it harder to breathe, and I won't argue the point. Hey, those masks aren't the most comfortable fashion accessory, especially during the heat of a Hattiesburg summer. (Thankfully, September has arrived, and relief is in sight.)
Also, as a guy who wears glasses, I don't like the way that mask makes my lenses fog up. Still, in either case, the discomfort or inconvenience of wearing masks are minor tradeoffs for keeping ourselves and fellow citizens safe from the COVID-19 virus.
When it comes to their jobs, millions of Americans have the luxury of being able to work from home, keeping themselves and their families safe from the virus. Unfortunately, many jobs don't allow for that option.
Essential front-line jobs, the ones providing the goods and services we need every day, can't be performed from home. Those jobs, many of which pay minimum wage or just above, are often performed by people of color, working in big-box retail stores and restaurants. Of the more than 180,000 people who've lost their lives as a result of the virus, a disproportionate number are black or Hispanic. That's true, in part, because their jobs require them to come in close contact with throngs of people on a daily basis. For their safety, that makes it doubly important for us all to mask up when entering places of business.
And what about those "invisible" workers, the ones we never see or even take time to think about? I mean factory workers.
Here in south Mississippi, the poultry industry is part of our region's economic engine. During this pandemic, supermarket shelves are being cleared of fresh chicken, as poultry sales have shot up nearly 80 percent. (The line of cars blocking Hardy Street traffic for the drive-thru at Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers is proof enough.) But, seriously.
Restocking those grocery shelves has placed pressure on poultry producers, extending to plant employees, as they work harder to fill the supply gap, preventing interruptions in our nation's food chain. They work side-by-side on processing lines, a dangerous enough job on its own, made worse when joined by the threat of them contracting the COVID-19 virus.
As we know, many poultry plant workers may or may not be documented workers. Last year's raid of several Mississippi poultry plants left many of them living in fear. Working with razor-sharp equipment, daily exposure to chemical agents (designed to keep our chicken and meats safe) they already have plenty to worry about, including keeping their jobs.
And, what if they are exposed to the virus and become sick? Well, because of their legal status, poultry plant workers may be afraid to seek medical help or lack the financial resources to pay. Coupled with fear of losing their jobs, the situation becomes even more dire, putting them and their family's health at risk.
We may not think about these people much but consider this. A relatively small degree of physical separation exists between us all. One way or another, we eventually come in contact with each other, putting the entire population at risk. And, as we've learned, this deadly virus does not recognize race, political persuasion or socioeconomic standing.
The poultry industry insists they've installed extra safety protocols to protect workers. That includes employee temperature checks before reporting for work and wearing a mask during their shifts. (That's got to be uncomfortable.) But I have other questions. How often can they wash their hands? How much social distancing can be practiced while working on a poultry-processing line? Jobs are performed working side-by-side on dangerous machines, with yet another danger now added to the mix, the threat of contracting COVID-19. Still, there they are, working for low wages, so we can have our southern fried chicken at dinner time. (And some people have the temerity to complain about wearing a mask?)
Now that area in-person schooling has restarted, we must be even more cautious for the sake of students, teachers, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and for everyone playing a role in educating our children. Hattiesburg, being a college town, we've got to think about the campuses of our institutions of higher learning, too.
Now, let's talk about medicine. For a city our size, Hattiesburg has an impressive medical community, providing state-of-the-art health care for all of southcentral Mississippi. Our own Hattiesburg Clinic is one of 89 locations across the country participating in Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine research trials. (Moderna is a biotechnology company focused on drug discovery and vaccine development.) As you can see, medically, we're in good hands. But let's not tax our local medical system by being careless in the age of COVID-19.
No matter who you are, we all have a role to play in keeping ourselves and each other safe. I hope we've learned the whole social distancing thing by now. (Have you?) And what about wearing that mask? Do you keep a spare in the car for those times you may have forgotten to bring one along? (Thank you to those local businesses supplying masks for us who forget to bring one.)
This is no time for politics. By now, we all know the drill. Frequent handwashing, social distancing, wearing a mask … are all proven ways to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Now that so many Americans are taking the threat more seriously, as of this writing, there are fewer national hotspots for spread of the virus. But let's not get complacent, the threat is still there.
Mississippi, once itself a COVID-19 hot spot is, thankfully, seeing a decline in the number of reported cases. The death rate, a lagging indicator, should soon begin reflecting the extra precautions we've all been taking. We've also seen a substantial decrease, locally and statewide, in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and ICU bed usage. Way to go, Hattiesburg!
The beginning of fall is almost here. Football season doesn't feel quite the same but at least Mother Nature is about to kick those hot summer days outta here. Meanwhile, in the match-up between us and this nasty virus, it's not even halftime, there is much work to be done. Forget the politics. Now, more than ever, we've got to work as a team to win this one. Let's kick COVID-19 off the field and outta here, too. Hey, y'all know what to do: Mask Up, Hattiesburg!
Elijah Jones is a proud Hattiesburg native who enjoys writing. Email him at email@example.com.