Social distancing, mask wearing: Individual rights or what is morally right?


         Steven Clark

Social distancing, mask wearing:

Individual rights or what is morally right?

Allison Anderson











All 50 states have relaxed COVID-19 restrictions to varying degrees. With protests for and against restrictions, and some business owners and church pastors citing constitutional grounds for outright defiance, does the government have the authority to continue to impose restrictions on movement, public gatherings and requiring the wearing of masks in public?


Alison Anderson:

Under the First Amendment to the Constitution, Americans are given the right to freedom of religion, speech and assembly. Our leaders must weigh the safety of the whole population against the freedom of individuals as they set these guidelines—and this is difficult in the United State where we value our freedom of movement and expression very highly.

Where tighter controls are tolerated on an ongoing basis (Singapore is one example) controlling COVID-19 has been easier and more successful.

Most of us will agree that it is better for everyone when we rely on cooperation and trust rather than command and control. However, there is clear statistical evidence that during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, when millions of people died worldwide, cities that enacted strict isolation measures, including mandating mask wearing, had far fewer cases and deaths than cities that did not impose restrictions.

Evidence of this pattern is also emerging during the COVID-19 pandemic, no matter what science deniers choose to believe.

As a preventative measure, Utah declared a state of emergency March 6. Since then, guidelines have been issued, and most recently, wearing masks has been encouraged. Conformity to these guidelines is generally left to businesses, churches and individuals, although a few blatant violations outside the state have prompted police /government action. A business may refuse to serve any customer that violates their policies.

So are the protests against COVID restrictions appropriate? Should those of us who disagree with mask-wearing just defy the guidelines? Does your insistence on your freedom imperil my safety? In the United States, the answers to these questions are generally answered individually. The question in my mind is whether the answers are considered selfishly or unselfishly, intelligently or ignorantly, wisely or foolishly.


Steve Clark

The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution gives governments authority to impose restrictions on movement, order mandatory quarantining and dictate aspects of social behavior, such as social distancing and wearing masks.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right of states to impose the same types of restrictions. In 1909, in Compagnie Francaise de Navigation a Vapeur v. Louisiana State Board of Health, the court held that Louisiana could enact and enforce quarantine laws unless preempted by the U.S. Congress.

Compagnie Francaise remains unchanged, and courts have cited it as authority for state quarantines as recently as the ebola outbreak.

Numerous Supreme Court decisions uphold the right of states to impose health restrictions. Just weeks ago in May, the Supreme Court declined to hear two lawsuits brought by churches that alleged COVID-19 restrictions violated their freedom of religion and discriminated against them because grocery stores and other essential businesses were allowed to stay open while their churches were not.

I hear people who protest the restrictions shout that it’s their “right” to refuse to comply and that being required to wear a mask violates their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms. One group is even planning a 5,000-person country music concert in complete defiance of COVID-19 restrictions.

From a strictly legal standpoint, if they defy the restrictions, they are in violation of both state and federal law. Their contention that they have the “right” to do so is factually and legally wrong.

It will make some of my anti-vaccine friends howl, but I believe under this same authority, governments could make it mandatory for all citizens to be vaccinated, even against their will, if the state or federal government requiring it deemed it to be a necessary public health precaution during a pandemic.

Whether government should impose restrictions, and the extent to which doing so affects the lives and livelihoods of its citizens, is another question altogether. Because you can do something, should you? Legal arguments are one thing but the human cost is another. What say you, Alison?

Alison’s response:     

Steve, I think that on these issues we are on the same page—and considering that we’re both law-abiding citizens, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Weighing the human cost against the right of the government to impose restrictions is a tricky balancing act.

Both the Trump administration and some state authorities were reluctant to impose social distancing. Because of this hesitancy, many more Americans have suffered and died than would have if our leaders had acted sooner.

According to Columbia University disease modelers, if the United States had begun imposing social distancing measures one week earlier than it did in March, about 36,000 fewer people would have died in the coronavirus outbreak.

And if the country had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, two weeks earlier than most people started staying home, the vast majority of the nation’s deaths, about 83 percent, would have been avoided, the researchers estimated.

Because Utah’s leaders are trying to use “directives” instead of “orders,” some people can take guidelines more seriously than others; for instance, in Utah County, a large family party that included dozens of family members resulted in a hotspot of COVID cases.

Personally, I am miserable wearing a mask, and I miss my children, grandchildren and 90-year-old mother sorely. I’m heartsick about my son being furloughed, and I’m tired of missing my weekend date night to the movies. And I miss singing in church. But blaming the government for these difficulties—and defying guidelines—only compounds the problems and endangers us all.

Steve’s response:

The reason restrictions weren’t imposed sooner was because the Chinese lied to the world. President Trump was the first world leader to shut down China travel and take other important early steps. First estimates of U.S. deaths were originally between 300,000 and a million, but because of the President’s quick action, we’ve seen just north of 100,000 to date.

Utah is relaxing business and other restrictions in a measured and prudent way. Thank goodness churches, restaurants and some businesses are opening, and people are beginning to go back to work.

As things normalize, the sad truth is that the virus is still with us and is still just as deadly. Relaxed restrictions turn the question from what governments should or shouldn’t do to what I should do out of concern for those around me. Do I have enough character, and compassion to impose restrictions on myself for their sakes?

The need to wear a mask hasn’t changed. Do I wear one until there’s a vaccine because the government says I have to, or because it’s the right and compassionate thing to do. Do I socially distance because a cop is watching, or do I do it because I care for someone else’s well-being?

That’s been the real question all along. In the discussion of “rights,” you can wear a mask in public and socially distance without any of your “constitutional rights” being abridged. After all is said and done, it’s simply the ‘right’ thing to do.