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My Small Alabama Town, Masked and Unmasked

AUBURN, Ala. — What is it like to live in this small college town during ordinary times? It’s nice.

Auburn is a pretty town in the eastern part of the state, with gently rolling hills and lots of green. It’s a friendly town, too, with neighbors who show up with a chain saw the day after a storm to cut the fallen tree in your backyard into firewood.

The South has problems, of course, but that’s another essay. I am, and always have been, a great defender of the South, the region of our country that gave us Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, John Lewis — well, the list goes on. If I started to delve into the South’s political complexities, the way my county — Lee County, after Lee, Robert E. — voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, then a year later, overwhelmingly for a Democrat, Doug Jones, for a Senate seat — we would be here all day.

Well, these are not ordinary times. An issue I naïvely believed was uncomplicated: mask-wearing, to reduce the spread of a virus that continues to spiral out of control. When the pandemic first gained a foothold here, the entire town, myself included, was on the hunt for hand sanitizer. I saw my former neighbors at CVS. Try the Piggly Wiggly, Karen said. They had some yesterday.

Now we know that hand sanitizer is only a supporting player in the fight against the coronavirus. Contaminated doorknobs aren’t the enormous threat that airborne droplets are.

Luckily, we have an easy solution that can reduce your risk of both contracting and spreading the virus: masks. You don’t even have to buy them. You can make them! Get yourself some cloth and a needle and thread and go to work. Sewing not your thing? Steal your dog’s bandanna, the one the groomer sent her back with, and tie that around your face, which is what I did in the early days, before another neighbor, who happens to be the secretary of the Lee County Democrats, made a mask for me.

ImagePeople without masks pass by sign that thanks citizens for wearing masks and in very small type adds that it is “Mandated by the State of Alabama,” posted on the door of a local business on Wednesday.
Credit…Julie Bennett for The New York Times

Mask-wearing — it’s what every leading health organization in the world recommends, including our own beleaguered Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s what the even more beleaguered W.H.O. recommends. The infectious disease physician at our hospital had been begging people for weeks to wear masks. But because there was no mask ordinance here, all he could do was beg.

His pleas mainly fell upon deaf ears. I made the mistake of reading the comments in a local Facebook group. The people who did not want to wear masks had a variety of reasons: infringement upon their civil liberties was a popular one. In what should be a hopeful sign, after a sharp rise in virus cases and I.C.U.s across Alabama nearing capacity, Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday issued an order requiring mask wearing in most public spaces. But Governor Ivey’s order grants broad exceptions and by her own admission, will be hard to enforce.

And given everything that’s happened in our usually pleasant town over the past few weeks, I wonder how much will change.

Auburn’s mayor, Ron Anders, lives two streets away from me. Two weeks ago, I saw him mowing his yard and texted my two friends. “He has to live his life, Anton,” one of them responded, and though I texted her back a string of laughing emojis, I thought — does he? What was more important at that moment than a mask ordinance?

Both he and my City Council representative said that their hands were tied, that they could do nothing because a loophole in Alabama’s ridiculously complicated Constitution meant only Jefferson and Mobile Counties could make public health orders for their cities.

Credit…Julie Bennett for The New York Times

Then Governor Ivey gave permission to cities in Alabama to issue their own ordinances. The progressive group I’m in on Facebook, which mobilized the push for masks in Auburn, revved up our engines. We emailed and called and laughingly considered greeting Mayor Anders outside his house, each of us standing six feet away from the next person.

We met a wall of resistance. There’s one member, Beth Witten, who insists we need only to educate the public, and then everybody will magically start to wear masks. There’s another, Brett Smith, who, when asked on his Facebook page if he would vote for a mask ordinance, responded with a GIF of Nick Offerman playing Ron Swanson on “Parks and Recreation,” glaring at the camera, an American flag overlaid upon his face. I like “Parks and Recreation” as much as anyone, but people are dying.

There’s Bob Parsons, who argued eloquently for masks at the last City Council works session, but for every Bob Parsons there’s James Buston, our city manager, who, though he does not have a vote, advises the council. He’s responded to emails with skepticism that cloth masks work, asking constituents to respond with studies that show they do.

Credit…Julie Bennett for The New York Times

In response to all this, I’ve used the mind-blown emoji quite frequently. I’ve made a lot of jokes — the most prestigious medical journals in the world have offered study after study citing masks’ effectiveness, but none of those are good enough for Jim Buston of Auburn, Ala. — but most of all I feel a great, unshakable sense of despair.

In about five weeks, roughly 35,000 students will descend upon our small town. The university requires masks on campus, but I wonder how much good that will do when that campus sits in a town where so many people resist the idea of covering their faces, where we are not united by the common goal of protecting one another.

It’s often said that college football is a religion in the South, and if that’s true, we won’t be going to church this fall. If we don’t get infection rates under control in Auburn, how will we allow thousands of fans into stadiums? Businesses live or die by the money that fans spend each fall. Our enrollment goes up when we win. Auburn without football is like a church without a preacher.

I hope people get to return to church — both the real kind and the football kind — safely and soon. I doubt they will, though. As I said, I’ve always been a great defender of the South. When friends elsewhere ask how I could live here, I bristle. I tell them there’s a lot to love about this place that is my home, that we by no means have a monopoly on racism.

After George Floyd was murdered, hundreds of people gathered in Toomer’s Corner, where after each victory Auburn fans roll the trees with toilet paper. I was astonished by the turnout. My 5-year-old son asked me if we’d won a football game.

That’s the South I believe in. A South that is trying to do better. The South that is resisting the campaign for a simple means of protection from a terrifying virus — well, that is not my South.

Anton DiSclafani is a professor of creative writing at Auburn University and author of the novels “The After Party” and “The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls.”

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