City Councilor Linda Morad lost her temper last week.
She had had enough of her colleague, Councilor Naomi Carney, attending council meetings without wearing a mask.
“This is not a joke,” Morad loudly chided Carney, who sits directly next to Morad in the council chambers, probably within the 6 feet of recommended COVID distance.
“People are dying. And as you sit here with no mask, while all the rest of us have our masks on. Inappropriate. Totally inappropriate,” she said.
Morad said she was especially upset because the Rev. David Lima had opened the meeting by praying for the husband of a City Clerk’s Office worker, whose 55-year-old husband had died of COVID that very day.
Though Morad’s outburst was unseemly, you kind of got the impression that the rest of the councilors were nodding their heads in silent agreement — even if they had no interest in endorsing the angry way that Morad delivered her message.
The flare-up took place during the middle of a council debate over a motion by Morad that the council again be allowed to hold its public meetings remotely, until the April 1 cutoff date that Gov. Baker has enacted.
The governor has taken action as the omicron variant has raged throughout the region and beyond. Carney was the only councilor to cast doubt on whether it is advisable to hold meetings remotely again.
Morad is a well-intentioned person — a person who feels things deeply, and she may have been out of place in her angry delivery. But her sentiments about what has been going in the chamber were not out of place.
The truth is that many of us feel the same way as Morad when we find ourselves in public settings with people who, oblivious to all empathy for their fellow human beings, simply will not wear a mask.
All the sensitivity, it seems, must be for those who don’t want to wear the coverings, even when in a group setting. All the toleration must be for those who want to remain unvaccinated, no matter what that action causes for the rest of society.
So the careless grocery shoppers are determining how dangerous the trip to the supermarket will be for everybody else. The folks who just won’t mask up decide how much more stress the poor overburdened nurses and doctors’ families from St. Luke’s will have to suffer through.
Somehow, the right of people to protect themselves against others who are spreading a potentially lethal disease has lost the media battle to the right of other people to be irresponsible. Somehow, we’ve come to a point where we are taking seriously someone who says “I just don’t care if you get sick; you’re interfering with my freedom.”
What is being called freedom, of course, is really the freedom to spread sickness. It’s not true freedom, however, but some kind of extreme libertarian form of license we’re talking about here.
Do you want to know why people have these kinds of attitudes? Turn on your local talk radio; you won’t have to wait long to hear this “Americans have a right not to wear masks” stuff.
You can’t, as the cliche goes, yell fire in a crowded theater. You can’t run a Stop sign just because you think the intersection doesn’t need it. But evidently we are being led to believe that you can spread a virus, if you are so inclined.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact you can’t see the virus.
The irony is that Carney is one of the most affable and good-natured individuals on the City Council. Nonetheless, she sat at that council meeting last Thursday maskless, even as most of her colleagues wore the mask through most of the meeting.
Yes, it’s true that the councilors and guest speakers take their masks off when they are speaking, and that for a lot of the meeting that means the council president and city clerk are maskless. So whatever illness there is around to be spread at a given council meeting, there is a good chance it is being spread in the council chambers. Especially because City Council meetings can go on for hours, increasing the danger of exposure for those who are there for the entirety.
In response to Moard, Carney quietly said that she has been following the science, and noted that scientists have said the current dominant omicron variant is less virulent than previous strains. She said she follows the mask rules for the rest of City Hall that is not controlled by the council, or in public buildings she has reason to enter.
In the end, however, she said she does not believe omicron is dangerous except to people who have “culpabilities.”
The good councilor certainly meant “co-morbidities” not “culpabilities” but it was clear she well understands the facts of the situation.
Carney speaks for a great group of us in this country who have psychologically been beaten down by this pandemic about to enter its third year. “We need in this country to get back to some semblance of normalcy,” she said.
True enough, but we can’t do it by ignoring the best available safety precautions.
Morad’s scolding of Carney was an almost perfect example of what is happening across the country. Only this week we learned that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes (a culpability, as Councilor Carney might say) must sit next to Justice Neil Gorsuch, who like Councilor Carney, does not want to wear a mask, even when he is in close, indoor quarters with others.
Sotomayor and Chief Justice Roberts later sought to downplay the reality, but the facts are clear, when it comes to the pandemic, we do not have a consensus as a country, a state or even in a city like New Bedford about how to deal with it. Many months after vaccines have been generally available, only 55% of the residents of New Bedford are fully vaccinated.
Carney is not an unfeeling person. In a conversation with me later, she spoke about how she encouraged her 93-year-old mother to be vaccinated prior to her having lung surgery last summer. Her mother has come to live with her since the surgery. Nevertheless, she declined to say whether she herself is vaccinated, maintaining some nonsense about the nation’s medical establishment changing the rules at various times.
“I don’t want the country to be masking up again,” she said.
Carney repeated some of the favorite memes on conservative social media — that COVID is a man-made disease (that’s a theory that has not been proven), and in all honesty I’m not sure why it matters as far as masks go. The good councilor also does not like it, she said, that Massachusetts has been one of the last states in which the government has remained shut down.
When the council voted on Morad’s motion, the vote was 10-1 with Carney opposed. One would be forgiven for thinking that Carney may have been influenced by some of the populist talk she hears at Sheriff Tom Hodgson’s office, where she has worked as the director of the inmate community work program for many years.
Newly elected Council President Ian Abreu confirms to me that going forward now, all meetings of the full council will be held remotely by Zoom until April 1. The location of the individual committee meetings will be up to the council chairs of those committees, and Abreu said he expects most, if not all, to meet remotely.
Mayor Jon Mitchell’s office acknowledged that his directive that requires masks to be worn inside City Hall does not apply to the council chambers and several other rooms controlled by the council. This, even though the directive itself seems to imply it does apply to the City Council. It says there is an exemption “when a member of a public body is speaking during a meeting.”
The mayor’s spokesman called that a “gray area” and said the council does indeed control its own chamber. Perhaps the mayor didn’t see the value of a fight given that Abreu has already called for the body to meet remotely.
It’s worth noting that there were easily 20 civilian spectators in the council chambers last week, who were there to witness the swearing-in of the three councilors who had tested positive for COVID on inauguration day, and thus could not take the oath of office then.
So it won’t matter for the near future whether Councilor Carney wears her mask in council chambers. And it won’t matter if Councilor Morad breaks decorum by shouting at a fellow councilor who has driven her to distraction.
What will matter is that we won’t be able to work out in a few months the deep divisions in this country over the pandemic. And everything else.
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com.
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