The sign said …

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“And the sign said…” —Five Man Electrical Band

Instead of posting the Colorado state order that requires masks to be worn inside public places, the sign on this Montezuma County business door read, “We prefer to see your smiling faces, but it’s up to you.”

Perhaps the sentiment was only intended to be a charming antidote to the political ideological battle being waged across America, so I reached for the door and stepped inside.

I’m happy to report that I wasn’t immediately tossed out of the establishment for leaving my mask in place. In fact, I was quickly invited upon entering — just in case I didn’t know how to read, couldn’t see because my glasses had fogged up, or hadn’t noticed the sign —t o join in what psychologists might eventually refer to as a passive aggressive love-fest, a celebration of freedom within a local bastion of noncompliance.

“Oh, you don’t have to wear that mask,” the sales lady cooed.

“Oh, yes I do,” I replied, “for your sake as well as mine.”

In the interval between words I surveyed a vast expanse of merchandise, and I noticed only one person wearing a mask. It turned out to be my own reflection in a pane of glass. Those who milled around displayed their own smiling faces, sometimes glancing at me as if I was a pariah. No doubt I served as a reminder that a virus that had already killed 220,000 Americans was still hanging around. I had invaded their bubble of happiness like a needle against a festival balloon. I had tweaked their uncertainty by bringing in my own.

Then the woman who’d greeted me slipped over to the counter to whisper something to another employee. I suspected I’d become a talking point, a foot soldier from the enemy camp, even — dare I say it — a Democrat! When I first pulled up and parked outside I’d only thought of myself as a customer, a member of our community going out of his way to support a local business that had reopened. Believe it or not, I’d even considered buying something I really didn’t need, but it was time to leave.

She’d made her point. Now let me take a moment to make mine.

A “Mask Required for Entry” sign is not an assault on anyone’s constitutional rights. If not wearing a mask only endangered those who wouldn’t wear one there would be no health issue at stake. Think of it as the old-fashioned “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign, though those postings have a more sinister history. They gained prominence during the early 1960s, when civil unrest and racial injustice dominated our nation’s news. Businesses, no longer able to display “Whites Only” or “Colored Entrance” signs in their windows opted for a new declaration — an owner-imposed dress code on its customers. A tiny impromptu disclaimer “By order of the Board of Health” was added like fangs to a muppet, because no federal or state law to this very day documents an ongoing public health threat arising from not wearing shoes and shirts into a store, or even a restaurant.

The same kind of sign proved useful for keeping long-haired hippies representing the counter-culture, anti-war movement out of stores. I remember singing along with David Crosby’s “Almost Cut My Hair” as I rode my bicycle home from the high school tennis courts, “letting my freak flag fly” as I raced down the hill toward home, too young to grasp its politically packed overtones. These days the lyrics might go like this:

Almost wore my mask

It happened just the other day

It was gettin’ kind of scary

I coulda said too many people were in my face.

But I didn’t and I wonder why

This swab up my nose just makes me cry

And I feel like I owe it, yeah … to someone, yeah…

You see, the “Mask Required” sign is not a heavy-handed attempt to assert gratuitous authority. Nobody has ever died from exposure to long hair, although skin color has proved lethal for far too many Americans. Bigotry has a longer history than the coronavirus and too many people don’t seem to care if there’s ever a cure for that.

You see, a “No Service” sign is the symptom of an ideological problem, a reaction by a particular person who refuses to accommodate a different point of view, but a “Mask Required” is not the same. A genuine health threat exists. A precaution should be heeded, like any other notice posted for everyone’s safety, no different than, say, a sign on a restaurant door that reports “Salmonella Served Here.”

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/

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From David Feela.