As the Vietnam War started to look like a hopeless quagmire in 1966, a Vermont senator named George Aiken famously suggested that America could save its troops by simply declaring victory and coming home — regardless of the actual situation on the ground. Aiken passed away in 1984, but his spirit seems to be guiding America’s COVID-19 policy as the second anniversary of the pandemic looms.

From coast-to-coast, in red and blue states, governors and mayors are sometimes giddy in declaring victory over the coronavirus and racing to remove any remaining mask mandates and restrictions on public gatherings, hoping to score points with an American public desperate for a full return to normalcy. The unspoken part of the bargain is hoping you won’t look at the tiny box in your daily newspaper or its website — the one showing COVID-19 case counts spiking across America for the fifth time since March 2020.

Last week, a New York Times article on the pros and cons of continued mask mandates stressed that “the summer’s delta surge [is] in the rearview mirror” — ignoring the much more salient point that winter’s COVID-19 surge is just beginning. The author just had to look at the newspaper’s homepage last Wednesday to see that new coronavirus cases in the United States had surged 25% over 14 days, back up to 94,335 in one day.

“We are concerned that changing course in the winter months, not to mention the week before a major travel holiday, is not a prudent course of action,” reads a letter from 10 Washington, D.C., city council members who are alarmed that their mayor, Muriel Bowser, is lifting a citywide mask mandate. “It sends a signal that public health concerns are back to normal when they are not.”

No, they aren’t. In the Midwest, where cold weather typically drives people indoors a couple of weeks earlier than the rest of the United States, and where vaccination rates aren’t quite as high as the coastal states, officials have seen a two-week rise in cases of 56% and — much more worrisome — a 20% spike in hospitalizations. And this was before the heavy travel and large get-togethers associated with the Thanksgiving holiday.

Even more alarming is the situation with our developed, Northern Hemisphere peers over in Europe, where several countries — such as Austria and Netherlands — have seen cases rise to a level where government officials have taken the extreme step of new lockdowns. Many exhausted citizens aren’t standing for this. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, for example, young people rebelling against harsh new restrictions rioted for three nights in a row. They set fires and threw rocks at cops, who then fired bullets, wounding four people.

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It surely won’t come to that in America — only because our political leaders know that lockdowns are a non-starter in a nation where people fight at school board meetings or issue death threats over much more benign measures such as mandatory masks in public schools, where children may have only recently become eligible for a vaccine. So instead, we see these premature victory declarations like in Florida, where state officials praised “Governor Ron DeSantis’ leadership and our data-driven approach free of mandates” for a temporary autumn decline in cases after a harsh summer and early fall in which 21,000 people died under the benevolent rule of the Sunshine State’s Dear Leader.

Look, America’s “Whatever Guy” shrug to the increasing case counts is understandable. Americans are a determined people, and ever since the first big spring drop in case counts that came after this year’s arrival of vaccines, the momentum to reopen the economy has been inexorable. Hopefully, with some 200 million citizens having received at least one jab, case counts won’t return to the astronomical levels of one year ago — but if they did, there is zero public support for the harsh measures coming back in Europe.

But the nation should also look at the troubling new COVID-19 numbers and ask itself: Would it kill people if they were required to wear a mask in public spaces during the upcoming winter months, when seasonal spread is worst and with many children still not vaccinated? Or, more to the point, will it kill some of us if we don’t?

In hindsight, one of the biggest goofs by U.S. public health officials was failing to see the great utility of mask-wearing in the first weeks of the pandemic. Some 20 months later, we know better — or at least medical researchers do. We know know that even the simplest cloth mask blocks more than 50% of infection-bearing aerosols and that more sophisticated masks do even better, with evidence in studies done everywhere from here at home to remote villages in largely unvaccinated Bangladesh.

Ironically, some of the best circumstantial evidence that mask-wearing stops infections — even in the current moment of widespread but far from universal vaccination — comes from right here in the Philadelphia area. Throughout the fall, officials in America’s sixth largest city — where vaccination rates have been close to 10 percentage points lower than neighboring suburban counties — kept its indoor mask mandate in place while the rest of the region did not. Since September, Philadelphia has been reporting lower COVID-19 case counts than its adjacent counties. “The only difference I see is the mask mandate,” Cheryl Bettigole, the city’s health commissioner, told The Inquirer. “It’s hard to see what the difference is otherwise.”

At the start of the Christmas season, America is at a crossroads. Political leaders can do what’s popular, what’s most expedient, and what may keep bullying Proud Boy types from showing up at school board meetings: They can continue to lift mask mandates, as employee vaccine mandates take hold. Or they can follow the science — something this country is increasingly terrible at. Buffalo this week reimposed its indoor mask mandate — the city’s hospitals are 90% full as cases spike — but I wonder how many will have the courage to follow.

Nobody likes wearing masks. I don’t, but other than maybe one week of irrational exuberance in June, I’ve kept wearing them in stores, even now as I’m triple vaccinated. That’s because I don’t want to think about the impact of a breakthrough infection on me or the others around me. But honestly, I’m even more worried what another spike — when Americans have convinced themselves the pandemic is all but over — will do for our fragile body politic.

If the nation seemed on the brink of civil war over school masking requirements a couple of months ago, will new restrictions trigger Rotterdam-style disturbances here in the U.S.? The prevailing American mood as 2021 winds down was already deeply sour, so how will it impact the economic recovery and efforts by President Biden and Congress to pass legislation for the middle class if intensive-care units are full, armed anti-maskers are marching on statehouses, and the public is generally more angry and frustrated than it is right now?

Requiring that everyone wear masks in indoor public spaces for a few more months would likely save thousands of lives. That would be one small step for humankind, but it would require one giant leap of faith in science. I’m not holding my breath.

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