HomeCivic EventsCOVID and Mask Debate Lingers On

COVID and Mask Debate Lingers On

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Protestors speaking out against the town’s mask mandate take their protest to the common.

In response to a large number of Westford residents opposing the town’s mask mandate, WCAT has decided to shed light on the topic and offer a voice to supporters on both sides. Throughout the summer and fall, an organized group of protestors populated the Common, carrying signs and expressing concerns over the Board of Health’s decision to require masks in public spaces.

We share here the unedited Q & A exchange between WCAT reporter Scott Shurtleff and Travis Rowley, the movement’s principal organizer. The 41-year Rhode Island native is founder and administrator of Unmask Westford Kids Facebook page which has burgeoned to 150 members, mostly parents who strongly oppose the required wearing of masks in schools.

He believes that the wearing of masks stunts the social and psychological development of children. More importantly, he says that forcing the masks on children leverages the government’s desire to have everyone vaccinated. By making the students uncomfortable in the masks, maybe they–and their parents–will capitulate to the vaccine.

Rowley is quick to iterate that he and his group are not “anti mask nor anti vaccine.” Rather, they are against any mandate that requires parents to mask and vaccinate their children. “People should have the freedom to choose.” He also espouses that governmental and public health officials are not giving all the facts. Facts that he says will fully educate people enough to make their own decisions.

Q: Your group’s primary mission is to remove all mandates about masks and vaccines in schoolchildren, particularly in Westford Public Schools. What do you say to people who need to be coerced into following public health guidelines? Will they choose to do it when given the option?

I mean, if it is left to individual choice then adherents of your philosophy would obviously not mask their children or vaccinate them. Wouldn’t this allow the virus to persist and lengthen the duration of the pandemic; both locally and globally?

First, I think it’s important not to conflate the two issues:  Masks and Vaccines. This is a complicated matter, so we should be precise when engaging in it. Second, school masking is unnecessary, counter-productive, and harmful to our kids’ health and development (obviously). It follows that I really don’t perceive it as a problem whenever someone decides to send their child to school without a mask. In other words, I don’t think people should follow clumsy government directives that are arbitrary and nonsensical. Third, in addition to the fact that the decision to inject one’s children with an experimental vaccine (to combat a virus that poses no significant threat to them) should be left with parents, it is highly dubious that vaccinating Westford children serves to add any noteworthy protection to others, and certain not to make a dent in the global scale. 

Lastly, I need to correct one presupposition within your question – i.e. the idea that these Westford parents can be considered anti-mask, anti-vaccine, or anti-science. The overarching philosophy of the group simply prioritizes individual liberty over public solutions, while also closely following the ongoing scientific updates. Your question seems to be driving at that tension between individual rights and collective action. It’s not that I can’t imagine a scenario in which the government would be justified in utilizing such force, but the advocates of government coercion simply don’t have that compelling interest here. 

Q: Why does your wrath fall mainly on the Westford Board of Health and School Committee? They are merely following statewide requirements as outlined by Massachusetts health officials. Shouldn’t your fight be taken to the statehouse? 

Well, I certainly do become frustrated whenever a central governing body decides to blanket oppressive policies across entire populations. But there are enough voices aimed at the Statehouse right now. Thank God. And I’m personally more appalled at our local leaders’ acquiescence to State autocrats than the authoritarianism itself. Why elect local leaders if they’re not going to lead? Why elect them if they’re not going to stand up for our kids? It’s simply not true that our local elected leaders can’t declare municipal autonomy. That’s a copout. 

It has become perfectly obvious that the BOH is simply in full agreement with the State’s agenda of universal vaccination as a solution to the Covid threat, and that they have been collaborating with State powers to implement that strategy here in Westford. Among others, Mass Education Secretary James Peyser openly spoke of the State’s plan to hold masks over our kids’ faces until they were vaccinated:  “Instituting universal masking mandates to further encourage vaccination rates among everyone in our schools is one measure we can take now.” Without any dissenting voices to be found on the local BOH, the members continuously demonstrate their cooperation with this effort:  “I’m super excited that kids who are 5-11 are now eligible to be vaccinated. This is really the most important way we can protect ourselves against Covid and hopefully return to a more normal state fairly quickly.”

Every member of the BOH believes the optimum solution is a collective one. Every individual – no matter how healthy; no matter how young; no matter how much natural immunity he possesses; no matter how small of a threat Covid poses to his demographic – should get vaccinated. That’s what the BOH believes (despite all the instances of record case rates occurring within highly vaccinated regions). And that’s what has motivated their concealment of any information that might lead to vaccine hesitancy here in town. I’m speaking primarily of the astronomically low risk that Covid poses to children, and certain scientific findings that have caused entire countries to halt vaccine rollouts for people who are relatively young and healthy. Particularly while Westford parents are being pressured to vaccinate their children, it is incumbent upon the local BOH to arm them with as much information as possible before making such a consequential decision. The BOH’s stubborn refusal to do so constitutes an appalling disregard of medical ethics and public service, which is why I started the petition that calls for their resignations ( https://ourfight.online/f3ff53a1-f333-491e-83f6-96cd8b970f0d ).

Q: Your solitary point is to remove these mandates only from schoolchildren, or do you have a broader objective in mind?

Our main focus is certainly on Westford’s compliance with the school mask mandate. After all, our children are being actively harmed by it. Since this dispute started, however, the BOH instituted its own foolish town-wide indoor mask mandate. The people who had your child wearing a mask while playing outdoor soccer last year still have your child wearing a mask while playing indoor basketball. The insanity is alive and well.

So, yes, the discussion certainly has been broadened. But the primary aim is still to reverse the school policy, because there’s more urgency surrounding that situation. It’s one thing for an adult to be required to put a mask on for 15 minutes while shopping at Market Basket. It’s a more pressing matter when your 5-year-old is having his development stunted because some people are still under the delusion that they’re saving lives by strapping a mask across his face for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week.

Q: In our telephone conversation you expressed your distrust of the local authorities for their “deception by omission,” selective fact-sharing, and taking information out of context to emphasize a point. You find this practice to be dishonest—as most people would. But on your FB page you seem to apply this same strategy, no?  You posted a clip of Dr. Leana Wen talking about masks and their effectiveness. 

    Your comment to the clip was, (paraphrasing the doctor) “A facecloth covering is largely nothing more than decoration. It doesn’t do much for you.” “And it’s time we’ve gotta say that,” you added. 

   But you deliberately omit the rest of Dr. Wen’s statement that includes: “Wear a high-quality mask, at least a three-ply surgical mask.” 

   Do you think your comment was misleading and misrepresented the doctor’s message?

I think your question makes a false equivalence, while also raising a fair point. Let’s start with the false equivalence. Yes, the ineffectiveness of cloth masking was hardly the end of the argument that Dr. Wen was making. It also is hardly the end of my position. But the video I posted aimed to make a very specific point about the ineptitude of the top-down medical establishment by revealing yet another policy alteration that ended up aligning with what detractors of the media groupthink have been declaring for months. The fact that Dr. Wen goes on to recommend medical-grade masks (by the way, she wasn’t addressing the issue of schoolchildren here) was beside the point. 

I suppose it’s always okay to insist, however, that more context should be included. So you’re basically agreeing with me that, particularly when dealing with something as new and evolving as Covid-19, as much information should be disseminated as possible. Fine. Fair enough. You won’t now find me retreating from a conversation about how tenable it is to tightly fit surgical masks onto our kids’ faces for 30 hours per week. Let’s talk about it.

Now I’d just like to point out how easy that was. Nobody’s perfect. We approach truth only through robust and open dialogue, not by censorship. It took me three seconds to address your criticism. Conversely, for months the BOH has stubbornly refused to acknowledge all the credible scientific information that might cause vaccine hesitancy. They clearly do not want people thinking for themselves. That’s unconscionable. And that’s the difference.

Q: Is it the effectiveness of the masks that you question? Or the benefits vs. drawbacks of wearing them?

Both. There are four key points to the No Mask / No Mandate position. -1- Covid poses very low mortality and severe-illness risk to children. The seasonal flu threatens the life of a child more than Covid. So it’s worth pointing out that we have never masked our children, others people’s children, or repeatedly tested them for the flu. -2- Masking children for consecutive hours and five days per week is harmful to their health and cramps their social and educational development (for the third school year in a row). This is particularly true in regard to children with special needs and learning disabilities. -3- Masking, particularly cloth masking in crowded settings for long periods of time (schools), is ineffective and is providing a false sense of assurance to many parents. This is especially true when it comes to children who don’t operate masks properly, and are sharing rooms, hallways, bathrooms, single-file lines, and also remove their masks to lunch/snack together. Again, for hours at a time, five days a week. -4- Lastly, what is touted as a highly effective vaccine is available for any adult (teacher, parent, administrator, or community member) who believes our children will become significant vectors of Covid throughout town. Shame on anyone who advocates the abuse of children in order to benefit adults.

Q: Your page and your followers cite many studies and authoritative sources that support your point-of-view on the (lack of proven) safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, particularly in young children. These studies certainly have merit and are worthy of consideration. But they are outliers to a litany of other studies that trumpet the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines. How do you reconcile embracing these few studies while disregarding the overwhelming counter-argument?

I think your premise is too broad and imprecise, and again threatens to falsely characterize our group as “anti-vaccine.” We are not. We are pro-choice. We are anti-coercion. I will acknowledge, however, that (widely censored as they currently may be) there are droves of credible studies cited by thousands of medical scientists who have been sounding various alarms regarding vaccine safety and efficacy. A wider dissemination of these voices certainly could result in more people questioning universal vaccination as a tenable solution, and they certainly spook the likes of the Westford BOH. In my research, I haven’t found any legitimate reason to disregard or silence these professionals as others have. And I’m just not sure how you’re stacking up these competing scientific opinions.

Moreover, it’s simply a matter of record that Dr. Eric Rubin of the FDA advisory committee admitted, “We’re never gonna learn about how safe the vaccine is until we start giving it. That’s the way it goes.” I’m hardly ashamed to admit that this is the type of information our group tends to share with one another. It also might be worthwhile to remember all the things that the “pop science” has gotten embarrassingly wrong during the past two years. This includes economic lockdowns, school closures, masking efficacy, the mechanics of viral spread, the risk to children, vaccine durability, vaccine effectiveness against variants, the advantage of natural immunity, the origins of Covid-19, and so on.

The existence of scientific dispute is basically the point here. Managing one’s life through the Covid era is complicated, marked by millions of different people with their own unique circumstances and personal considerations. It’s truly unfortunate that Westford is being ushered through these complex times by individuals devoted to the idea that the same simple solution exists for everyone, and that universal vaccination is such a worthy goal that it validates an authoritarian nudge.