Common Cents & Wearing a Mask on July 24, 2020

I think it safe to say people are ‘coming around’ to the idea the economic recovery probably won’t be V-shaped. We might not be talking about a recovery, at all, without another round of some sort of Federal intervention. Further, until there is some sort of readily available vaccine or effective treatment, we are likely going to stumble from outbreak to outbreak, and potential lockdown to potential lockdown. It is all very tiresome, wouldn’t you agree?

But why are cases in the US still on the rise while Europe and much of East Asia seem to be past the worst? The truth is little more than: they just are, and it is weird. Densely populated cities like Tokyo and Seoul have had a fraction of the cases some of our major MSAs have had. In fact, the current estimate of total confirmed cases in all of Japan, the whole country, is just a little over one-third that of Alabama. You read that correctly. What’s more, and this is astounding, the Birmingham-Hoover MSA, little old us, has had more confirmed COVID-19 cases than Tokyo.

Social distancing? Wearing masks? Virus mutations? Testing procedures and protocol? Temperatures? Societal norms? The decentralization of our government relative to others? Distortions of the truth in some countries, if not outright prevarications? Sure, why not? All of it, and then some.

What’s a body to do?

Last Saturday morning, I pulled my car off Interstate 59 at Exit 154 in Springville, Alabama. I made a right at the top of the ramp, and headed towards the Exxon station at the bottom of the hill. This is a more frequent occurrence than you might imagine. Before I got out of the car, I squirted some Purell on my hands, and put on my mask. It was coffee time, although their coffee isn’t anything special. It is just quicker than the options on the other side of the highway.

There were three other patrons inside the store besides the cashier. Would you care to guess how many of them were wearing a mask? If you answered anything other than zero, you would be wrong, in error, and incorrect. What’s more, none of them seemed self-conscious about it. You know, that look many of us have undoubtedly worn at least once which screams: “I promise I always wear one…I just forgot it out in the car is all. Please don’t yell at me or tell the manager.”

The guy in front of me in line was either around my age or had a decade on me, but was no younger. Despite it already being north of 80 degrees outside, he was wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt. His purchases were nothing more than a soft drink and a pack of Newports, talls. When the cashier started to ring him up, he asked the following (in a country but not redneck accent, and you know the difference if you live in the Deep South): “why are you wearing that thing?” By thing, he meant her mask.

Her reply was succinct: “the make us wear them, and I don’t really want to get sick.” He sort of grunted at her, grabbed his items, declined his receipt, turned away, and saw me appropriately distanced from him, on the yellow X on the floor, wearing my mask. The way he looked at me suggested he would just as soon give me a haymaker than the time of day, however, I was too much of mask-wearing, yellow-bellied coward to worry with bruising his knuckles. Good times. You want cream, sugar, and emasculation in your coffee?

In my younger days, I might have felt like bowing up and prancing around, well maybe not prancing, but you get the idea. My ears would have gotten red and my adrenaline levels up. These days? My first, and only, reaction was to think: really, buddy? That is what being a man is all about in Springville? Whether you wear a mask like a chicken or you ‘man-up’ and go without? Okay…cluck, cluck. If nothing else, its kind of the law these days in public places, and I can’t imagine a more stupid citation/fine.

However, this dude isn’t alone. Not in Springville, not in St. Clair County, not in Alabama, and not in the Southeast. Heck, you have probably seen viral videos of people becoming completely unglued over the matter. It is a direct violation of the constitutional rights, by God! They are Americans, and no one is going to tell them to do ‘nothing,’ let alone wear a mask in public like some kind of namby-pamby. What is everyone afraid of? A little cough? Some fever? Aches and pains? That’s just life. Deal with it…like a man. There ain’t nothing in that corona, or whatever in the [heck] it is, virus that a little Mtn. Dew and some Newports can’t kill. Just it wait until 5:00! What I’ll be drinking then will sure enough take care of it if the Dew don’t.

In all seriousness, I am being serious about these people. Will wearing a mask end the pandemic? Maybe not. How about staying 6-feet away from others, particularly strangers and in public? Maybe. However, what is the real downside to wearing some kind of face covering when you aren’t at home or in your car? Or doing a better job washing your hands? Shoot, washing your hands in general? Using the hand sanitizer just about every store offers at the front door? Developing better hygiene habits? Letting the old people shop during the hours set aside for them, and them alone?

Help me understand.

Even if ‘your’ personal attempts to control the spread of COVID19 are miniscule, need to be seen with a microscope, what happens when you add to your neighbor’s efforts? And their neighbors’? And so on and so forth? One individual person wearing a thin mask in public might not make a noticeable difference, but what of 330 million? Hmm.

Might the collective effort of all us be enough to keep the politicians from shutting down economies again? Keep a few extra people out of the hospital, let alone the morgue? Save a couple of jobs in the process? Shoot, we have seen what happens to the economy, to employment, when ‘we’ shut down whole industries and communities. Why wouldn’t we do whatever we could/can to keep from doing that again? Cowardly? Infringement on my rights? How about small steps to protect my income statement and balance sheet?

In the end, science will have to find a cure for COVID19, and no amount of mask wearing will change that. However, simply following some pretty unobtrusive guidelines, let’s get real here, doesn’t turn you into a creampuff. If doesn’t mean the government is taking over your life. However, it could help save a job, a visit to the doctor’s office, and even a life…it could. You know what, sometimes could is good enough.

So, the next time someone thinks you cowardly for following the rules, just tell them: “hey man, I am just doing my part in helping you keep your job and growing my investment portfolio along the way.


Have a great weekend, and put on your mask!

John Norris

Chief Economist (and mask wearer)



As always, nothing in this newsletter should be considered or otherwise construed as an offer to buy or sell investment services or securities of any type. Any individual action you might take from reading this newsletter is at your own risk. My opinion, as those of our investment committee, are subject to change without notice. Finally, the opinions expressed herein are not necessarily those of the reset of the associates and/or shareholders of Oakworth Capital Bank or the official position of the company itself.