When my daughters were little I would entertain them at the breakfast table three times a week by reading newspaper columns by “Miss Manners” to them. They were delighted. With wit and wisdom Miss Manners, a.k.a. Judith Martin, would introduce them to the myriad ways in which adults misbehave and to creative ways in which to deal with them.

I’ll return to Miss Manners in a few minutes. First let’s look at some of today’s adult misbehavior.

Gov. Greg Abbott back in July issued a statewide order requiring the wearing of masks in public because, he said, “wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

But he made an exemption for the act of voting. He is very concerned that everybody gets to vote.

Yes, this is the same governor who last month issued an order prohibiting counties from having more than one “drop box” to accommodate people who are concerned about deteriorating mail service. He said it was to “help stop attempts at illegal voting.”

If you envision people stealthily stuffing bales of ballots under cover of darkness into unattended drop boxes, I can appreciate your concern. It should be noted, however, that some states position unattended postal-style ballot drop boxes quite liberally and because of a variety of security measures have not experienced such fraud.

But in Texas using a drop box is an indoor sport. You don’t go to a street corner. You go to an office of your election administrator. San Antonio has a full-time elections administrator and staff, and they have only one office. But in most of Texas the county clerk administers elections.

In some big counties, the county clerk has satellite offices that were offering drop boxes. Harris County has 11 satellite offices to serve its 4.7 million people. Travis County has three for its 1.3 million citizens.

To drop your ballot in the one remaining box per county you have to deliver your completed ballot, and your ballot alone, in person. If your spouse has suddenly taken sick and needs you to submit his or her ballot, too bad. Before you drop it in, a clerk will check your ID and have you sign a register – exactly the same requirements as if you were to vote in person. But as they say on TV, there’s more. Later a team of one Democrat and one Republican will match your signature on the outer envelope to signatures the clerk has on file. Only then will your ballot be fed to a machine to be counted.

In others words, drop boxes in Texas go through more checks than any other method of voting. So much for the governor’s concern for ballot security. More likely, he was throwing a bone to his right-wing base that was irate that he had expanded early voting by nearly a week.

That appears to be exactly what he was doing by exempting polling places from his mask edict.

The governor might consider it to be a matter of First Amendment rights, since for many people refusing to wear a mask is a political statement. For some, it is specifically a statement that they are Trump supporters.

But the reality is that in order to vote in person we already agree to temporarily suspend our First Amendment rights. We are not allowed to wear clothing featuring messages supporting any candidate. It’s the law. If you wear a MAGA hat or a Biden/Harris T-shirt to a polling place, you will be invited to return as soon as you have removed the item.

Let’s think of wearing a mask in human terms rather than in political or legal terms. The science of mask wearing, not well understood at the beginning of the pandemic, is that the coronavirus is most efficiently spread through droplets we emit when we breathe, droplets we forcefully broadcast when we talk loudly or cough, droplets that we expel when we sneeze.

What’s more, these droplets hang in the air and can accumulate. That’s why indoor transmission is more common than outdoor, and why retail workers can be infected by serving a series of asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers over the course of hours.

An article in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine explains that when everyone wears a mask it not only prevents some infections but also reduces the severity of infections that do occur. The evidence is that it significantly increases the number of asymptomatic cases. The reason is that the severity of the disease increases with the volume of infected droplets breathed in by a victim.

Wearing a mask cuts down on the amount of infected droplets inhaled, thereby partially protecting the wearer. But wearing a mask also cuts down on the number of infected droplets an infected person broadcasts. So when all or almost all people wear masks, they are substantially reducing the number of infected droplets in the air, cutting the number of people infected, and reducing the severity of the disease for those who do get infected.

A large cohort of the good citizens working the polls – perhaps as many as half or more – are senior citizens, who are among the more vulnerable to hospitalization and even death from COVID-19. Yet many of them will have worked 14-hour shifts during the last week of early voting and 12 hours on Election Day. And while Abbott also exempted them from wearing masks during voting many local officials, including Bexar County’s elections administrator, are requiring it.

In other words, these front-line essential workers will be suffering the annoyance of wearing a mask for many hours while some citizens will refuse to wear the disposable masks that will be offered them for the 10 minutes or less that it takes to vote. This isn’t political integrity. It’s a boorishness that adds to the risk for poll workers.

Those who refuse to wear a mask are like drunk drivers. They may kill themselves, but they are also capable of killing others. That’s why even in Texas, where we don’t require motorcyclists to wear a helmet, we make drunk driving a crime.

Which brings us back to Miss Manners. She once took up the issue of flag burning, arguing that it was more a matter for manners than for a constitutional amendment. Those who do it, she wrote, should be shunned, not imprisoned.

That gives us a map for how to handle those who refuse to wear a mask while voting. We should treat them, dear souls, as morally disabled. We should offer them the same concession we offer physically disabled citizens. They should be instructed to return to their cars, where a poll worker will take them a ballot.

Perhaps the poll worker could wear a special hazmat suit with lettering on the back announcing service to a mask refuser. That way people in line could do what they would do to a flag burner: glare.

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Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.