Herrington: Thoughts on ‘Phase 2’ and the great mask debate

By , Daily Memphian Updated: May 14, 2020 7:41 PM CT | Published: May 14, 2020 7:41 PM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

A couple of riffs on the state of coronavirus reality in Memphis:

Should we be in a hurry for Phase 2?: When Memphis and Shelby County unveiled its framework for loosening social distancing restrictions, it was a multi-phase approach with at least 14 days between phases. Phase 1 began on Monday, May 4, which means a move to Phase 2 could begin on Monday, May 18.

Health officer: Both employees and customers must wear masks

Will it be time to take the leap? County and city officials have been adamant about letting data guide them. 

“We’re looking at the data very closely,” Shelby County Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said on Thursday, noting they’d be looking closely at the new data coming in this weekend. 

There’s this, though: The operational difference between “Phase 1” and “Phase 2” was always fairly narrow and has grown more so via “phase creep”: The governor overruling the county on churches, hair salons and barbershops being shifted up due to suburban pressure, attractions such as the Memphis Zoo opening ahead of time on a case-by-case basis. At this point, it might be less of a leap than a hop.

In Phase 2, the allowable number of people in “a purposeful group” jumps from 10 to 50, probably the biggest change and no small consideration. But there are no changes to churches, restaurants, health care providers (including dentists), grocery stores, retail stores, offices or event spaces. In fact, the most common phrase on the Phase 2 plan is “same as previous phase.” 

The shift from Phase 1 to Phase 2 will likely be the smallest degree of change in this process, smaller than the beginning of Phase 1 and perhaps much smaller than an eventual transition into Phase 3. (What’s beyond Phase 3? Pre-COVID normality? We’re too far out at sea to glimpse that shore.)

Are the comparatively small stakes of a shift to Phase 2 good reason to forge ahead quickly absent the kind of weekend spike that delayed the start of Phase 1? 

The argument here is to the contrary, for a couple of reasons: First, with up to 14 days as a COVID incubation period, a few more days would deliver a cleaner sense of the impact of loosening at not that much of a cost. 

Herrington: The Memphis Zoo takes a cautious step forward with reopening

Second, the impact of public messaging right now might be more important than the technical impact of the next round of changes. When this “Back to Business” framework was first presented, it was made clear that the gap between phases would be a minimum of two weeks. But that didn’t stop a frequent conversational edit to “we’re shifting to Phase 2 in two weeks.” 

Given that the move to Phase 3 will likely be a more profound change and may well take longer to comfortably make, a slight delay here would underscore the message that 14-day transitions are not guaranteed, indeed that forward progress on loosening restrictions at all is not guaranteed. Highlighting that now might be valuable in a couple more weeks.

The indicators on the city’s web site might be a matrix of green dots, but the yellow light remains a real-world constant. 

Leaders give Arlington Chamber members optimism for phase 2

Everybody wears the mask but how long does it last?: That’s a line from a Fugees song and, OK, I guess it doesn’t apply because not everybody is wearing the mask. But it’s hard to get past the anecdotal on this issue. 

A week ago, I got quasi-scientific, tracking mask use at big-box retailers in Midtown, East Memphis and Cordova over the course of a day. With nearly 300 hash marks in my notebook, the “masked” topped the “unmasked” by a 53/47 spread.

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A couple of days later, radio host/writer Gary Parrish tweeted that he’d gone to the grocery store in Hernando and saw almost nobody wearing a mask. Gary’s feed was filled with responses ranging from “I went to so-and-so and everybody was wearing a mask” to “I went to so-and-so and nobody was wearing a mask.” I guess it depends on when and where you go. For what it’s worth, I went out to three stores over the weekend — two of the same and one different — and seemed to see roughly 50/50 mask use.

There’s not much medical dispute that wearing masks properly, even cloth ones, particularly in populated, enclosed spaces, has a public health impact. Three Tennessee doctors make that case here. They say:

Indeed, if all of us take appropriate precautions, including social distancing (6 feet to be exact), hand washing (at least 10 times a day), and wearing a facial covering such as a mask, we could rapidly open many of our businesses and prevent COVID-19-associated deaths. 

What’s been disconcerting is seeing an attempt to turn this particular public-health practice into yet another battle theater in the culture war. There’s no reason it needs to be that way. 

Your approach to the use of a mask — and other related personal decisions — amid a pandemic does not need to be pre-determined by your political or cultural identity. In solidarity with that notion, I’ll present a couple of entirely rational opinions that happened to cross my social media feed on Thursday from communicators on either side of the right/left divide.

Acquiring masks has been too much of a community adventure

From Dan McLaughlin, of the conservative National Review: “I can’t really picture the thought process that leads to making ‘masks have no effect on spreading germs from your mouth’ the hill you want to die on. Surgeons have been wearing them for a century for a reason. Pro-mask is not pro-lockdown; nobody has to wear a mask to stay home. The mask is the ticket to *end* the lockdown. I hate wearing masks, can’t see while wearing them, won’t wear one just walking empty streets. But I wear it inside stores, banks, takeout places.”

From Chris Hayes, MSNBC host: “I’ll say that most conservatives I follow and read have been quite sensible about the coronavirus. That’s also reflected in public opinion data, where large majorities favor prudence.”


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