Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869, and like many who found themselves poverty-stricken, Mary dreamed of a better life in the United States. In 1884, a 15-year-old Mary boarded a ship to New York, and eventually found work as a domestic for a wealthy family in the big city. By 1906 Mary discovered what she would regard as her lifelong calling, being a cook. She apparently genuinely enjoyed preparing food, and history suggests she was good at it. She lived with her employer and cooked for the large family every day.
Then people started getting sick.
Over just a few days in the late summer of 1906, six of the 11 people living with her in the wealthy family’s home became extremely unwell with typhoid fever, a malady that kills up to 30% of those infected. An investigation by the New York City sanitary engineer suggested the family’s water supply was contaminated, or perhaps some soft clams the family consumed were at fault. And all this time, Mary Mallon kept cooking.
That year, up to 3,000 NYC residents would fall ill with typhoid, and far too late for many, the scientists of the day discovered that the source for the deadly bacteria was not a well or a clam, but rather the quiet cook in the kitchen. Mary was the first ever known case of a person carrying a germ and spreading it without becoming ill herself. Over her vigorous protests, Mary was locked up for two years to stop the spread. She was released only after signing a promise never to cook again. She re-entered society and immediately broke the promise, finding another position as a cook and again spreading typhoid and death throughout her community. Eventually, over her yelps of outrage, Mary Mallon was imprisoned on North Brother Island, in NYC’s East River, where she remained until suffering a stroke in 1932 and was moved to a hospital for the remaining six years of her life. Thus ended the life of a woman who only wanted to cook but will be forever remembered as the spreader of a deadly disease and by the moniker “Typhoid Mary.”
Which, of course, brings me to Castle Rock.
A Colorado Politics story reports on a small restaurant in that lovely community that decided to be open on Mother’s Day, with no real restrictions and no social distancing. A sign posted on the door warned potential customers to stay away if they were “scared” by the lack of precautions. While my heart truly goes out to the owners of such small businesses, and while I understand the desire — or indeed the need — to reopen, I cannot help but remember Mary Mallon, as well as the warnings by Dr. Fauci and others that in our current pandemic, there are symptomless spreaders of COVID-19 among us, likely unaware that they are shedding virus that can infect others.
Many of those demanding an immediate reopening of the economy complain that their inherent constitutional rights are being denied. Having taught that august document for many years during my time teaching at the Air Force Academy, I confess I can’t find any constitutional basis for their assertion, unless they are making a vague “right to peacefully assemble” argument, or perhaps something based in the 14th Amendment. But such assertions run up against several historical roadblocks. The government has long been allowed to set regulations about how and where private businesses are to operate. That same Castle Rock restaurant, for example, would not be allowed to bar health inspections during “normal” times. The car dealer down the street is barred by law from, say, refusing to sell cars to women, and the bank up the street is required to protect depositors’ money through a variety of federal regulations. So yes, government can, in fact, regulate businesses. And the owners of the café in Castle Rock soon learned that thumbing your nose at public health has consequences, as Gov. Polis acted yesterday to suspend their license to operate indefinitely. Citizens, no matter what their motive, are not allowed in a free and just society to decide which laws they will obey, and which they will ignore.
I must admit, one objection that I just do not understand is the issue of face masks and why some people are declaring their “right” to not wear one when interacting with other folks in businesses, parks, and such. These same people would never think of not wearing, well, pants, when conducting business or strolling in a park. They do not assert that they can’t be told be to wear said pants while also claiming they don’t have to wear no stink’n masks. And given that wearing masks is more to protect others than oneself, I also do not understand the lack of concern for the health of others in such folks.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., is often credited with explaining the role of the Constitution by saying, “your right to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.” It seems that some restaurant owners in Castle Rock, and other mask-less people around our state, reject the idea of personal responsibility, at least in part. Shouting that you don’t have to wear a mask may be today’s equivalent of Mary Mallon cooking a stew. We really do need to think of others first. That is, at least in part, what being an American means, or at least it should.
Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.