Letter: Safety vs. freedom, what is the right balance?

Posted 8/17/21

To the editor:

Recently, the Barrington Times dared to share its view on masks, which in turn generated several passionate responses. One reply stated how she was “Shocked and …

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Letter: Safety vs. freedom, what is the right balance?


To the editor:

Recently, the Barrington Times dared to share its view on masks, which in turn generated several passionate responses. One reply stated how she was “Shocked and infuriated,” another found it “reprehensible and irresponsible” for the paper to share such thoughts, especially since the editorial board is not made up of “health professionals.”  Another stated how he was going to cancel his subscription. Is this kind of reaction healthy for a free society?  

“Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower. It is important to address a common mistake people make regarding the role of “The Expert” in matters such as mandated masking, vaccination, etc.  Many people approach such issues as questions of science; they are not. By definition, they are not. Science is about studying the physical world, coming up with a hypothesis, testing it, confirming or rejecting the hypothesis, etc. Science is not a field of making policy decisions about whether or not children should wear masks in schools, if vaccines should be mandated, etc. This is a crucial point, which is often misunderstood. We, as a society, weigh the risks/rewards and then make such decisions based on the information provided by those who are knowledgeable in that field.  It is a collaboration, not a set of demands. You go to your doctor, you are informed, you are given the pros/cons of options, you might even get a second opinion, and then YOU make an informed decision. Science plays an important, informative role in the decision-making process, but it does not decide the policy to be implemented, nor should it. 

Regarding the issue of masks. By and large, people are willing to do “their part.” Initially, we were told “15 days to flatten the curve”, people got on board, the curve flattened, but many things did not change, and 15 days turned into over 365. Now we are told our kids must wear masks again in school. Is this justified? Maybe, maybe not. Some perspective might help. On average, Rhode Island has approximately 875 deaths per month. This past July, there were six deaths from COVID-19, an 80 percent-plus drop from July 2020. Since March 2020, in Rhode Island, there have been zero COVID-19 deaths of anyone under 25. Though children can transmit the virus, evidence suggests they are not the driving force behind the spread. Given this information, important questions arise:  If masks are mandated now, during a time when things have been relatively good, then will they ever go away? What do the numbers have to be to drop mandated masking? If I’m honest, I'm afraid some may never want masks to go away; the feeling of “safety,” real or imagined, for which they provide, is too much to give up. I could be wrong, and I hope I am. 

Mandatory masking is not the only option; why not let people decide for themselves?  If someone is concerned, wear a mask, throw on an N95. Older students can get vaccinated as well, wear a mask while vaccinated, pretty safe. Why force others to wear a mask that will only marginally increase the safety of another? How far should we take the argument of “Well, it would be safer…”? Perhaps, to make us safer, speed limits in town should be lowered to 5 mph, or better yet, ban driving altogether? It all comes down to how each of us weighs safety vs. freedom; difficult questions indeed. 

We also need to be cautious about laying blame on others; our nation is already divided enough. One writer stated, “This mutation could have been prevented by more people masking and getting vaccinated...” Possibly, but it doesn't seem like it. The Delta variant can be traced back to India as early as October 2020, when vaccines weren’t even available. In addition, how could masking in the U.S. have prevented a mutation in India? Maybe I’m missing something. 

Regardless of what happens, we must resist the temptation to squash the voices of opposing views, stop making arguments from authority, quit blaming others for our predicament, and instead encourage open and respectful dialogue. Such is the best and only way for us to “get through this together.” 

Matthew Fletcher



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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.