It was the nation's second president, John Adams, who said, "We are a nation of laws, not of men." It is one of the lights that guides this experiment of democracy we're all engaged in and what holds us together as a society. After all, it's laws that hold that your inalienable right to swing your arms ends when one connects with someone's face, laws that protect your rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — those hallowed ideals that led the country's independence from foreign rule.
We watched with a mix of sadness, anger and angst last week as the rule of law frayed in parts of California, including the North Coast, as people and counties began to rebel against the statewide COVID-19 shelter-in-place order. We saw restaurants in Orange County — and one in Klamath — defiantly re-open to dine-in service and governments in Modoc, Yuba and Sutter counties go rogue, rolling back provisions of the state's order. In Mendocino County, Sheriff Matt Kendall broke from his public health officer, calling on the county to roll back shelter in place and strongly hinting he would no longer enforce it.
In Humboldt County, we were relieved that, as far as we know, defiance stopped with a protest. And while we would have liked to see a lot more social distancing and more facial coverings for the safety of the protesters and anyone downwind of them, nonviolent civil disobedience is a hallmark of democracy.
These are uncertain, scary times, whether you're looking at mounting bills, diminishing savings or rising death tallies. And amid all the uncertainty, we all need to admit a very uncomfortable truth: We don't know enough about this virus. We're still learning about how it spreads and attacks the body as we scramble to find treatments and a vaccine, and learn whether antibodies provide immunity. What we do know is that since reaching the U.S. in January, it has killed more than 71,000 people here, including 2,909 on May 1 alone, making it the deadliest day yet. (For perspective, that's almost as many people as were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks lost to a virus in a single day.)
We also know that people who have made studying infectious disease their life's work — people like Anthony Fauci — say this virus is very scary, very deadly and, if unchecked, could make the carnage we've already seen look relatively mild. You can choose whether to believe them. That's your right.
But just as your right to swing your arms ends when you hit someone in the face, your right to disregard infectious disease experts ends when you decide to violate a lawful order and put people in danger. It's not complicated.
In order for our society to hold, governors need to be allowed to govern states, health officers need decide the provisions of emergency health orders and law enforcement needs to enforce laws. When that system erodes — when a county bucks the state, a politician undermines a health officer or a county sheriff decides they know more about how to prevent the spread of disease than a public health expert — it's tremendously difficult to rebuild, especially on the fly as we continue to grapple with this virus experts believe will be here for months, if not years.
We are grateful that locally Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal and Public Health Officer Teresa Frankovich have presented a united front. Frankovich has a Master's degree in Public Health from University of California at Berkeley and spent nine years as the medical director of four health departments in rural Upper Peninsula, Michigan. While Honsal has repeatedly said education rather than citation is his preferred method of getting people to toe the line, he's made clear willful violations will not be tolerated and repeatedly stressed the importance of Frankovich's orders, from sheltering in place to wearing facial coverings.
No matter our personal feelings about these orders or what the doctor we saw on YouTube said, we need to follow their lead. The other way lies a rending of societal fabric we may not be able to repair when we need it most.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the Journal's arts and features editor and prefers she/her pronouns. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Jennifer@northcoastjournal.com Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill. Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.