There’s an old legal adage that goes something like this:
“Your right to swing your fist ends where someone else’s nose begins.”
That’s a colorful way of saying that while we all have rights, our rights end where someone else’s rights begin.
For the past few months we’ve been hearing a lot about individual rights. People say the government doesn’t have a right to tell them to stay home. People say the government doesn’t have a right to close their place of business. People say the government can’t tell them not to go to a bar, or a ballgame, or a graduation party. People say the government can't tell them to wear a mask.
And under most circumstances, they’re right.
But the law has long recognized that all rights are subject to reasonable regulation, and when someone’s exercise of their right threatens someone else’s right, it’s the government’s job to figure out how to balance those rights.
We are in the midst of a highly contagious and deadly disease that threatens our public health and safety. In less than four months some 130,000 people have died in the U.S., and probably more have not been counted. Public health experts say the best way to slow down the spread of the disease is by staying away from other people and wearing masks when we go out in public.
We have long accepted that the government can regulate public health and safety. We have laws against driving while drunk. We have speed limits, stop signs, and traffic lights. We don’t allow cigarette smoking in public places. You can’t drive down the street firing your gun in the air. You can’t carry toxic waste in your car or bury it in your backyard.
I don’t have numbers in front of me, but I’m going to take a guess that a hell of a lot more people are dying from the coronavirus right now than they are from drunk driving, or traffic violations, or from stray gunshots.
So please don’t tell me the government can’t regulate your right not to wear a mask. Because your right not to wear a mask ends where my right to stay safe from the virus begins. And where your friends’ rights begin. And where the cashier at the supermarket’s rights begins. And where the EMT who’s taking you to the hospital’s rights begins. And where the doctors who treat you’s rights begins. And the nurses who take care of you’s rights begins.
Not wearing a mask when you’re in public during this pandemic is like walking down the street swinging your arms and hitting people you pass in the nose again, and again, and again, and again. You don’t have a right to hurt someone else, and you don't have a right to get me or anyone else sick.
So please, be considerate, protect everyone’s rights, and wear a mask.