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Masks do protect us

Sunday, January 16, 2022

This editorial first appeared in Newsday.

Since the pandemic began, we have had to adapt on a regular basis to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. We began wearing masks, social distancing, and depending on our professions, working from home. When COVID-19 was first discovered, there was so much we didn’t know about the virus, including how it spread, how to treat it, or what we could do to remain healthy.

As president of Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW and the Long Island Federation of Labor, I have prioritized the health and safety of the essential workers my organizations represent as they serve their communities on the front lines of the pandemic.

All members of Local 338 are essential workers, and they don’t have the option of staying home and doing their jobs remotely. They work in our local supermarkets and pharmacies, as aides caring for seniors and those who need hands-on help, as bus drivers and school aides watching over our children, and in other public-facing fields.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve learned a lot about COVID-19. Most importantly, we know it's much more likely to spread through sharing an airspace with an infected person rather than physical contact. That makes it even more important to wear a mask, especially during this latest spike due to the omicron variant, the most contagious variant we’ve experienced so far.

This wave has only increased the urgency for a statewide mask mandate, and New Yorkers are fortunate to have a governor who fully understands the importance of protecting our essential workers. Now, we need that same support from our local leaders in enforcing the mandate.

Some may believe they are above state law and can undermine the mandate, but the only way to get the virus under control is by following Gov. Kathy Hochul’s directive and masking up in public. While she left it up to individual counties to implement this mandate, we need our local elected officials to enforce it.

When people don’t wear a mask, it is an insult to essential workers and all they have done for their neighbors during this time of need. They have sacrificed their health, time with loved ones, and overall well-being to keep our grocery store shelves stocked and our prescriptions filled, to make sure our loved ones receive the care they need, and that there was no disruption of vital public services we rely on.

These workers should not be responsible for enforcing this mandate. We have seen too many workers attacked or berated after asking a customer to do something as simple as wear a mask while they shop. Local 338 advises our membership to avoid approaching noncompliant customers in an effort to protect them from violent retaliation or harassment. The employer should be the one enforcing it, but it is increasingly difficult without the support of local leadership.

I am asking leaders across the state to do your part to enforce the mandate. Wearing a mask when you go to your local grocery store is not a lot to ask. It’s a sign of respect and an acknowledgment that our essential workers were there while so many of us had the chance to stay home.

It was and continues to be imperative that we work together on basic issues like this if we want to stop the spread of the omicron variant and keep our loved ones healthy.

This guest essay reflects the views of John R. Durso, president of the Long Island Federation of Labor and of Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW.