John, Susan Green Day of Prayer Culpeper (copy)

While wearing masks, Susan and John Green of Culpeper listen to a prayer to protect families during the Day of Prayer observance on East Davis Street in Culpeper on May 7.

At the Pole Green Produce farmer’s market in Mechanicsville on Sunday afternoon, “Proud to be American” flags flew in the wind as a line of cars rumbled into the gravel-covered parking lot. With the steady hum of a lawnmower cutting fresh grass just a few houses away, customers weaved their way through an appetizing maze of crisp radishes, plump beefsteak tomatoes, heaping piles of spinach and other local Hanover County staples.

Black strips of tape on the floor attempted to guide shoppers to stay 6 feet apart. But the staff and customers supporting this small business seemed to know that in a small, cramped space, their safety was in their own hands.

Around 90 percent of those coming in and out of the open-air market wore masks as they bundled their ingredients of choice. Sales were final due to the coronavirus outbreak, and if we’re ever going to change that reality, we need to change our behavior, too.

No government program will stop the ferocity of this global pandemic. Neither will the return of the economy. It’s up to us to stop COVID-19—and Virginia has some serious work to do to close its deficits in slowing community transmission of the virus.

In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked Americans to use cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The purpose was twofold.

First, masks offered an added layer of protection in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” like grocery stores, pharmacies and markets such as Pole Green Produce. Second, masks create a barrier to “help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”

In Richmond’s Fan District last Saturday morning, no one would know a mask directive was issued. Outside of the Starbucks on Robinson Street, two young male customers in their 20s or 30s stood within 6 feet of one another. Neither wore a mask and one was barefoot. A female senior citizen waiting for her order wore a mask and stood at least 12 feet away. We don’t blame her.

Down the street at the Early Bird Biscuit Co., in the shadows of the Retreat Doctors’ Hospital, three separate clusters of families and friends waited for their takeout orders. Only one group wore masks and the employee handing off the to-go orders lacked one as well.

In Henrico County, people taking advantage of a sunny Saturday afternoon browsed the mostly closed storefronts of Short Pump Town Center. A trickle of the usual flow of weekend shoppers walked the open mall. Some wore face masks; others carried them or wore them jauntily off an ear, only donning them if they came in close proximity with others. Ice cream shops seemed to be the main attraction, and plexiglass separated servers from customers.

Across the James River on Sunday afternoon, about half of the shoppers walking into Chesterfield Towne Center from the parking lot appeared to be wearing masks.

We’ve heard the arguments that the COVID-19 curve has been flattened in Virginia. They’re loud and clear. But how much of that success is attributed to compliance with the state’s stay-at-home order over the past two months?

How much are we still learning about how COVID-19 is transmitted? A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found asymptomatic carriers can spread thousands of droplets by speaking, which can stay in the air in a closed environment for 8 to 14 minutes.

How ignorant are we of the fact that Americans needlessly are dying? If 90,000 people perished in a war or terror attack waged on U.S. soil, would we refuse to serve overseas or defy a moment of silence in public?

Phase 1 is not a celebration. The governor’s guidelines for the “safer at home” gradual reopening of businesses include “continued social distancing, continued teleworking and continued recommendations for face coverings in public.”

By not wearing a face covering, you’re not only putting community members’ health at risk. You’re putting small businesses at risk for another prolonged closure if the virus surges. Refusing to do so in public is a sign of disrespect to your fellow citizens.

Customers at Pole Green Produce seemed to grasp this. If you’re really “Proud to be American,” wear a mask.

—Richmond Times-Dispatch

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