Our View: Don't Be Selfish

Opinion

It comes down to personal responsibility.

No matter how much we wish it could be so, there is no way to mandate that people wear masks and socially distance in private settings. Face covering mandates in public spaces are difficult enough to enforce; try telling someone having a few friends over that they must wear masks while entertaining in their back yard.

And yet, taken to extremes, failure to comply with those two simple things will keep the country from keeping the COVID-19 pandemic under control. The July 12 party in Chatham, from which has bloomed a cluster of positive cases, is a stark example, one invoked by Gov. Charlie Baker twice — on Friday and again Monday — as a cautionary tale of how not to behave during a public health emergency. Containing the virus depends on “the individual decisions that get made by all of us,” Baker said. “Most of the time, if people do the right things, we should continue to be successful in containing this.” But when they don't, “obviously that’s another story,” the governor said.

In any other year, the Chatham party would have been unremarkable; a bunch of friends renting a house and throwing a summer bash. It wasn't even rowdy enough to draw the attention of neighbors or the police. As of Tuesday, 13 of the estimated 30 to 50 people who attended the party have tested positive for COVID-19. On Monday, more than 40 people —including those who were at the party, were in close contact with partygoers or work in the food services industry — attended a clinic in Chatham to get tested. Another clinic is planned in Harwich later this week, after a number of area restaurants closed temporarily after a staff member tested positive. Many at the party reportedly worked in the food services industry, although ties between the closures and the party have not been definitely established. There's no evidence this was a COVID party meant to infect a large number of people; that appears to have been accidental. But it shows that an invisible virus doesn't care who you are, and even if you don't get sick, incidents like this can lead to the infection of others, including vulnerable family members, who had no choice in the matter.

A number of residents have called for stricter enforcement of face covering mandates, but as officials have noted, requirements in several locations in Chatham, in Harwich Port and in shops and restaurants only apply to spaces that are open to the public. That's where personal responsibility and doing the right thing, as Baker said, come in. And — it shouldn't need to be said but we'll say it anyway — not being stupid by attending a large gathering where people are not wearing masks or social distancing. With ambiguous messages and certainly no moral leadership coming from the White House, it comes down to our own sense of what's the right thing to do. The phrase “We're all in this together” gets thrown around a lot these days; perhaps a more helpful one would be “Don't be selfish.”