You put on pants, why not a face mask?

Masks are this generation's condoms. File photo.

"Masks are this generation's condoms"

It's not entirely clear which part of the Constitution is supposed to cover face masks, but somehow efforts to ensure public safety have been manipulated into a debate about freedom.

The Constitution doesn't talk about wearing pants, either, but we all wear those in public. (More on that in a moment).

In the absence of robust federal leadership, the spread of Covid-19 is being managed and will be stopped at the state and local level.

And that brings us to Alabama, where there's been a surge in cases. You should read this mind-boggling report from the Montgomery Advertiser on the meeting where Montgomery's City Council rejected, mostly on racial and party lines, a mask rule.

Here's how they wrote it:

Jackson Hospital pulmonologist William Saliski cleared his throat as he started describing the dire situation created by the coronavirus pandemic in Montgomery to its City Council before they voted on a mandatory mask ordinance. "It's been a long day, I apologize," he said.

"The units are full with critically-ill Covid patients," Saliski said. About 90% of them are Black. He said hospitals are able to manage for now, but it's not sustainable. "This mask slows that down, 95% protection from something as easy as cloth. ... If this continues the way it's going, we will be overrun."

More doctors followed him to the microphone, describing the dead being carried out within 30 minutes of each other, and doctors being disturbed when people on the street ask them if the media is lying about the pandemic as part of a political ploy.

But that plea from medical professionals in the main hotspot of a state that's turning into a national hotspot was met with questions about constitutional rights:

Councilman Brantley Lyons questioned whether masks and six-foot distancing really helps. They do, the doctors replied. Lyons was unmoved. "At the end of the day, if an illness or a pandemic comes through, we do not throw our constitutional rights out the window," Lyons said.

That's this whole situation in a nutshell.

Doctors say "mandate masks." Opponents say "respect our freedom."

The virus keeps going.

Life, liberty and the freedom to infect others?

The constitutional question is just poppycock, according to Jeremy Howard, a research scientist at the University of San Francisco who started the group Masks 4 All to advocate for a national mask rule in the US.

You don't have a constitutional right not to wear pants, he said in a phone interview. With Covid-19 ripping through the country, wearing a face mask should be like wearing pants. "There's a group of people making a fuss about their freedoms when in fact if they saw somebody out sitting on a bus not wearing any pants, they're not going to go sit where that guy was sitting. They'd be like, 'That's not OK, you have to wear pants.'"

Not wearing a mask right now is more dangerous than that, he said.

Howard wrote a much-cited Washington Post op-ed back in March and got some bipartisan help pushing for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend face masks in public, including from an appearance on Laura Ingraham's Fox News show.

Howard has spent the last four months in Texas and says a face mask requirement is even more important now. In Houston, his anecdotal observation is that mask use began to drop as the state relaxed its social distancing rules. "As economies open up more, masks become more important, not less important," he said.

Where masks are required

The vast majority of the world's countries, including nearly all of Europe and Asia, have or have had some kind of requirement that citizens wear masks in public, according to data compiled by Masks 4 All, which has tracked news reporting on rules in other countries.

According to their similar tally of US states, there are a number of states in the Northeast, Illinois, Michigan and New Mexico that have statewide rules. Other states have enacted more local regulations. And some states, like Texas, have discouraged their local governments from requiring face masks. The mayors of nine of Texas' largest cities asked Republican Gov. Greg Abbott to give them the authority to mandate masks in public settings in their cities.

According to the Texas Tribune, Abbott will not budge on requiring them.

"I make clear on a daily basis around the entire state of Texas that wearing a mask is very important, and local officials send that message," he said, according to the Tribune. "Putting people in jail, however, is the wrong approach for this thing."

Texas saw its largest single-day increase of new coronavirus cases Tuesday and several hospitals in Houston were at capacity on Monday, according to local reports.

Masks are this generation's condoms

This debate over masks had my editor wondering if there was some kind of comparison between opposition to masks today and opposition to condoms in the '80s and '90s, when HIV was taking off. I spent some time trying to research this.

A lot has already been written on similarities between the fight against Covid and the fight against AIDS.

But specifically on the comparison between face masks and condoms, here's what some in-depth Googling leads me to.

Some real similarities:

Both objects are a prophylactic placed on a person;

It could be easy to forget or be frustrated by having to put either one on;

The end result of either stopping or failing to stop the disease is not immediately apparent from using either;

There's a similar absence of federal leadership on the issue, back then by the Reagan administration and today by Trump, who seems to want to wish Covid-19 away.

But there are some real differences. First, you can see someone in public wearing a mask. And you can see someone in public who isn't. Condom use is not readily apparent to the public.

There was a religious element to opposition to condoms -- church leaders didn't want to push condom use because it would normalize sex by unmarried people.

Conversely, I read an interesting interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci from a Frontline episode on the AIDS crisis (both he and that program have been around forever), in which he talked about how hard it was to encourage condom use among people in the gay community at one NIH town hall very early on in the fight against AIDS:

I said, "I don't know what's going on, but I strongly urge you in your sexual interactions to use a condom, because I think we're dealing with a sexually transmitted agent," Fauci said he told the audience.

To my surprise, there were a considerable number of people in the audience who actually got up to the microphone and hooted me down like I was trying to impose my standards of sexual conduct on them. I said: "It ha[s] nothing to do with my standards of sexual conduct. I'm an infectious-disease person, and I'm telling you I think you should use a condom." There was suspicion that I was trying indirectly to suppress the gay liberation.

While Trump and others have tried to brand coronavirus as coming from Asia, there are no other stereotypes to who it affects, other than that it predominantly preys on older people.

Here's the bottom line. Doctors say wear a mask, to protect yourself and others. It should not be that you're picking a team by wearing one. Being the only person wearing one in a grocery store or at the park might make someone feel silly, but it should have the opposite effect.

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN via The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2020 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

The Gayly. 6/19/2020 @ 8:11 p.m. CST.