Recently, my family drove down to Tennessee to immerse ourselves in nature and find some peace and adventure during such dystopian times. While being up in the Smoky Mountains was beautiful and well worth the trip, it was also scary driving past the crowds of locals.

Tennessee is one of eighteen other states recognized as a COVID “red zone” with limited safety measures. The Center for Public Integrity defined these red zones as having more than 100 new cases per every 100,000 people within the last week. They were previously indicated to be in the yellow zone for test positivity between 5-10 percent. While federal recommendations have been made such as closing bars and gyms and encouraging more outdoor dining, this is far from what I saw. 

As if the local Trump hats and Confederate flags weren’t disturbing enough, the majority of the tourists and locals refused to wear masks. Young and old alike would walk about downtown like nothing has changed. The only mask enforcement was inside shops and restaurants; even then those masks were worn with noses exposed. 

The majority of the people in Gatlinburg, Tenn., where I had briefly stayed, were majority white and from the South, coming from states with few governmental restrictions imposed. Therefore any families who wore masks were openly ridiculed and mocked. The unspoken consensus was to be complicit in carelessness — as if “coronavirus is a hoax.”

Mind you, this isn’t some made up remark. Along the trip, I came across a family on a trail from Louisiana. She remarked that the case numbers are fake and that, at its worst, the virus manifests like that of a common cold. “People aren’t really dying from COVID, the survival rate is 99.99 percent,” she exclaimed. 

She begrudgingly mentioned the current state and public health protocols were impending upon watching their football games. I remember giving my brother an exasperated look as we left them.

I think the concept of social distancing and masking has some unnecessary negative connotations. The idea of wearing a mask has been seen as almost exaggerated to be oppressively restricting. While the yellow zone indicated above for Tennessee may seem small, it demonstrates these numbers are only increasing and nationally indicates poor implementation of federalized mandates to diminish exposure.  

How do you get someone to internalize what it means to be in a global pandemic? These aforementioned sentiments and the lack of action in areas like Gatlinburg are not only recklessly naive, but they are selfish and a proven endangerment to not only American health, but America’s educational disparities, concerning magnitude of unemployed people, homeless people, the food insecure and so many other people and institutions whose very existences are challenged viciously by this virus. We cannot keep calling these people immature, or dumb or childish. They know better — we must hold them accountable. We are responsible for one another.


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