The New York Times file photo by Demetrius Freeman/A masked replica of the Statue of Liberty on the front porch of a Brooklyn home in April.

Masks can and have saved lives during this COVID-19 pandemic. So can social distancing. And certainly vaccines can. But there is no cure for stupid.

That's why we need to keep our guard up for a bit longer and mask up. And it's why we need to resist the temptation to use unmasking as a badge of political identity, as happened this week in Texas and Mississippi.

Yes, we've made a lot of progress against the pandemic, but we are nowhere near out of the woods yet. Variant and mutant strains of the virus — read here, more contagious and more deadly — continue to be found. Not just in the United Kingdom or Brazil or somewhere else. Here. And in the Southeast.

What's more, the national trend of falling cases seems to have plateaued, even as fewer Americans are getting tested, according to health data. Meanwhile, Tennessee continues to rank 5th highest in the nation for total reported cases per 100,000 people.

Already, more than a half million people have died in the U.S., and even as a third vaccine has recently been approved, Tennessee is just now receiving enough vaccine to open eligibility for shots to the more than 1.1 million residents with conditions that make them more susceptible to dying from COVID — conditions that range from obesity and high blood pressure to diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

This is no time for pandemic fatigue.

When we say there's no cure for stupid, we're pointing fingers at Texas and Mississippi, whose governors dropped statewide mask mandates this week, even as thousands there remain without running water after recent extreme weather. And, yes, we're pointing, too, to Tennessee and Georgia where our governors lacked the political will to call for mask mandates.

But Hamilton County and other counties wisely imposed their own. Our county mayor, Jim Coppinger, is still wisely and bravely standing firm in the face of calls to drop the common-sense caution to soon — especially since the mask mandate has no impact on commerce here. Businesses in Hamilton County are and have been basically fully open for months, apart from the mask requirement.

"We're all anxious to get out of masks because of the progress we're seeing," Coppinger said. "But, again, we just need to bear with it, get these shots in the arms, give opportunities for people to be vaccinated so that we can have a safe community."

Coppinger, who established our mandate in July and has renewed it several times since, said he will do what's best for the county with the advice of local medical professionals and business owners. If not renewed, the current mandate will expire on March 31, and residents should continue to follow precautions, he said.

Eight months ago, Hamilton County was averaging about 65 new COVID-19 cases a day with 53 people in the hospital. There were fewer than 3,000 total cases in the community and 36 total deaths.

Then came winter and a surge of cases. In early January, the county was averaging more than 500 new cases a day.

The mask mandate did make a difference. No-mandate rural counties surrounding Chattanooga reported higher per capita case rates than Hamilton and likely helped drive the local surge.

Thankfully, since the first weeks of 2021, the county has seen a downward trend, averaging 66 new cases a day over the previous seven days with 54 hospitalizations. The number of our active cases has dropped below 1,000 this week for the first time since Oct. 23. Still, we've seen more than 35,000 cases and 463 deaths.

"We never thought we would be bragging about being under a thousand [a week]," Coppinger said Thursday. "But if you look at where we were ... we've come a long way. We just need to be patient and get a little bit further along."

If you really want to know how well our common-sense precautions have worked, look at the flu. With our masks, hand-washing, home stays, social distancing and, yes, readily available vaccines, flu season has almost disappeared this year. As of late February, labs reporting to the CDC had just 1,585 samples test positive for flu nationwide. Last year in the same period there were more than 183,000 positive samples. And so far this year, only one child has died of the flu. Last year, the number was 195.

Infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci told CNN this week the Texas and Mississippi decisions to relax masking and other restrictions were "inexplicable" and may endanger more people in country than just those states' residents.

But it's only "inexplicable" if you're thinking about health and morality and common sense.

It's not at all inexplicable if you're talking about our current climate of identity politics in which refusing to wear a mask has become, in the words of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, "a barefaced declaration that you reject liberal values like civic responsibility and belief in science."

Yes, those used to be values touted by conservatives, but not anymore.

When organizers at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference asked attendees to wear masks — not as a matter of policy, but simply to abide by the rules of the hotel hosting the meeting — they were met by boos and cries of "Freedom!"


Freedom from COVID, perhaps. But clearly not freedom from stupid.