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We Need to Talk About Power

Among freedoms granted by the First Amendment is that of “the people to peacefully assemble…”

So why won’t Fort Henry Days be held this year? Why are some high school football teams in West Virginia being told to stay on the bench this weekend?

Because public health officials, backed by Gov. Jim Justice, say that’s how it’s going to be.

Fort Henry Days annually presents living history programs at Oglebay Park during the Labor Day weekend. Organizers had thought they had enough safeguards in place against COVID-19 to go ahead this year. But the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department determined social distancing would not be possible, so the event was canceled.

And this weekend, high school football is banned in Fayette, Kanawha and Logan counties — because of COVID-19. That prompted a crowd of angry adults and young people to confront the governor on Monday. His compromise offer — that teams could play if every member was tested for the disease and found to be free of it — went nowhere.

We Americans have a tradition of not trusting authority and rebelling against it. But during the past 50 years, government has flexed its muscles in the name of public health, through measures such as air and water pollution controls that add to our cost of living.

More direct curbs on personal liberties have come during the past few years. Think about “indoor air quality” measures that ban smoking in certain places, including some in the outdoors.

Now, with COVID-19, have come bans on certain types of gatherings — though it needs to be noted Justice didn’t dare go as far as prohibiting religious services. He knows his limits. Many other governors said no to church.

Now, though, it has gotten serious, with bans on some high school football games. One wonders whether shutting down churches would have aroused the same level of anger.

Give public health officials, including governors, a break, though. For six months, we’ve all been groping around in the dark over COVID-19. Lack of knowledge has forced health and safety authorities to issue broad mandates and recommendations.

Rebellion was inevitable.

Soon, we hope, we’ll be able to employ hindsight in judging our responses to the virus. It will be imperative at that time to talk about the issue of personal liberties during emergencies — and, as I’ve suggested previously, who gets to decide whether one exists.

During the past six months, government has exercised power in ways not experienced by most Americans. One danger in any kind of government is that once those in charge have used power, they tend to use it again.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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