Prose & Comments: A question of balance

By Stephen Gessner

Throughout the history of democratic countries there’s always been a tension between, as the Declaration of Independence states, “…unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” and the needs of the greater society, the common good, and the creation of a social order.

Things such as eminent domain government land acquisition, helmet laws and even speed limits raise issues of how far individual rights go versus the role of the government. The pandemic crisis brings these issues into focus.

On March 13, President Trump declared a national emergency. Many states, counties and towns had already made similar declarations, often with more details, such as social distancing standards and mask recommendations.

This had not yet happened in Florida. On March 15 President Trump added “social distancing” to the recommended guidelines, but it was stated as not having more than 10 people at a social gathering, rather than any physical distance (6 feet) that needed to be practiced.

We tennis players on Amelia Island, Fla. faced a challenge. The declaration of a national emergency got our attention. But our governor had not acted yet and the federal guidelines on social distancing placed the limits at 10 people. Playing only doubles with a total of four players, many of us felt safe.

A few wise people stopped playing all together. Some continued to play but wore masks and gloves. And some, including myself I am ashamed to admit, continued in our regular behavior. We didn’t really think about the conflict between our individual rights and the common good. We knew so little about the virus that we assumed we were safe and therefore could not transmit the disease to others. Thus, individual rights were not compromised by any need to pay attention to the common good.

Then some new information quickly emerged. First of all, the Florida governor declared an executive order on April 1. He mostly followed the federal guidelines, calling for a “Safer At Home” policy, which included 6-feet social distancing. He outlined “Essential Services,” which included things like swimming pool maintenance. He also outlined what he called “Essential Activities” which included attending religious services and participating in recreational activities, such as swimming — (thus the essentialness of pool maintenance).

As strange as this executive order was, it got many of us tennis players’ attentions. Some pointed to the recreation exemption as a justification for continuing to play, though the governor did not mention tennis. (Interestingly, a few days after the order, the governor clarified that golf was allowed, though with some social distancing requirements), which made us tennis players acknowledge the superior lobbying efforts of the USGA.

Then on April 3, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) came out with a declaration that all tennis should be ended for now. The USTA cited medical concerns about infection, particularly from tennis balls.

For many of us this was the final blow and led us to stop playing. Some of us did cite the greater good conviction, which we felt overrode individual rights. Others have continued to play, usually without any sort of protective gear. Some of these cite freedoms as a justification, but they are not only invoking their own individual rights, but unfortunately are exposing themselves and others to possible infection.

The conflict between these two will never be neatly resolved. Hopefully, we can learn from episodes like this, to understand each other’s positions and maybe even think about this again when inevitably this conflict between individual rights and the society’s good will return in different settings.

Stephen Gessner, Ph.D., lives on Shelter Island and Amelia Island, Fla.