Credit: Getty Images/Kevin Kobs

On a recent Sunday morning, as I was finishing my routine three-mile walk around the county park trail, I spotted another trail regular and jogged to catch up. I hadn't seen the 70-something man in a few weeks, and since it was Sunday, I jokingly asked why he wasn't in church. "I don't know if we're going back to in-person," he said. "My wife and I have gotten used to watching services on their Facebook." As we continued talking, he added that his pastor has hardly mentioned the coronavirus or safety protocols like wearing masks.

"How is that possible?" I asked.

"Oh, it's true," he said, holding up both hands. "And sad. There's a lot we miss about going to church, but after Trump and now the pandemic, I can't say we miss the politics." When I suggested there were options, that there are at least two dozen churches within a couple miles of this very park, he raised both eyebrows and shook his head. And I know why. Changing churches in a small, conservative town makes a statement not about what you are for but about what you are against. One does not change churches. It is simply not done. "It'd be easier to sell our house and move, and as crazy as that sounds, don't think we haven't talked about it," he said.

I live in rural Anderson County, Ky. Former president Donald Trump won more than 70% of the vote here in both 2016 and 2020. There are only 23,000 people and lots of land. It is hard to get WiFi but easy to be outdoors without a mask. The latest numbers from our county health department on April 26 indicate a total of 1,721 coronavirus infections and 22 deaths.

Yet even as Americans are getting vaccinated, we are still fighting about masks. Because thanks to dangerously bungled messaging from the former president and his mask-snubbing administration, as well as conflicting messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fights about masks are long past being about safety. Many of my neighbors stopped thinking about the coronavirus pandemic a long time ago. But they may never be finished arguing about it.

Like the red MAGA hat, masks declare political party fealty.

So our physician senator, Rand Paul, R, uses hearings to ridicule Anthony S. Fauci — the better to get himself booked on Fox News, Newsmax or OAN prime-time shows. And the head of our county's Republican Women's Club posts articles on her Facebook page from the Babylon Bee, the painfully unfunny conservative version of the Onion, titled, "CDC Now Recommends Wearing A Seat Belt Even When You're Outside The Car," or an invitation to a "TRASH YOUR MASK!" rally last month that read, "As a symbol of the end of all the mandates and restrictions, we will have a trash can for you to TRASH YOUR MASK. Gospel music. Liberty speakers from all over Kentucky."

And it certainly does not help to see Americans who do not live in small, quiet, spacious towns like mine shaming people who are outside and distanced, per CDC guidelines, for not wearing masks. Because I can promise you that, all over the country, powerful leaders in communities like mine, from pastors to elected officials to conservative club presidents, will use every morsel of this performative outrage to our collective detriment.

My curiosity piqued by the conversation with my friend on the park trail, I tuned in to his church's Facebook service this past Sunday, titled "Christians Under Attack, Pt. 3." Within the first two minutes, the pastor said, "That's why, today, we've gone from respect for God to a rejection of God. We don't allow prayer or Bible reading or the posting of the Ten Commandments in our public schools or government buildings," and that is all I could take before turning it off. If there was something coming about masks or the end of the pandemic, I did not have the patience to wait for it.

When I hear politicians and national media organizations saying that vaccine hesitancy is due to the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or because rural people in Trump country don't believe in science, I wonder how many people they've talked to in towns like mine.

I live on a small lake. On Sunday afternoon, my next-door neighbor (a Trump supporter) came over to help us back our boat trailer into the woods. The first thing he said was, "I'm vaccinated! I can hug you now!" After we finished with the trailer, as we talked about coming out of the pandemic and having an outdoor party to celebrate, he said, "Okay, what's this whole thing about wearing masks outside — outside! — after the shots? It's such complete bull----. For crying out loud, if they want people to trust the vaccine, they need to give people a reason to get the vaccine besides how much it will help everybody else."

A friend who's doing some work out in Harlan County called and said, "You know who people will listen to about getting vaccinated? The volunteer fire department and the preachers. Country people trust firemen and their church more than any doctor. If you can get the preachers, you can get to 100% like that!"

Our county health department continues to be proactive about letting the community know, almost on a daily basis, how much vaccine it has available and to encourage people to make an appointment or to just drop in. Last week, it even added an incentive: "For anyone scheduling and receiving a COVID vaccine from 4/26/21 thru 5/27/21 at the Anderson County Health Department, you will be entered into a drawing to win the following: 36" Blackstone Airfryer Combo with multiple accessories (4 pc Breakfast Kit, 5 pc Griddle Kit, XL Griddle Press, Basting Cover, Grease Cup Liners, Griddle Caddy, and Griddle Cover)." It must be working: Our local paper, the Anderson News, reported last week that, according to CDC data, our county ranks in the state's top 10 for being fully vaccinated.

From where I sit — out here where neither I nor anyone I know has ever worn masks outside — vaccine hesitancy and debates over masks are not about people needing more information, but about the need to get local leaders that people trust, like their preachers, Republican club heads and volunteer firemen, to do the talking. They would be a significant improvement over national politicians who continue to knowingly spread falsehoods about everything from the coronavirus to the 2020 election results.

I recently finished reading "A Swim in a Pond in the Rain," the newest book by George Saunders. Afterward, I went back and listened to his interview with Cheryl Strayed on her "Sugar Calling" podcast, taped April 3, 2020, a few weeks into the shutdowns. Back in those early days, Saunders was speculating hopefully about what we as a society might learn during the pandemic. "It does remind me so much of 9/11 and that feeling of sympathetic compassion," he said, "where you're not in danger yourself, but you can imagine the fear and danger someone else is in, and you're longing that that person not suffer. You're longing that that person be happy, and that's very profound. I think if we can cultivate that feeling of wishing the best, that's such a powerful thing."

I wonder what Saunders would say now. And I wonder how much better off we would all be with less shaming and more sympathetic compassion.

Teri Carter is a writer living in central Kentucky. This piece was written for The Washington Post.


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