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Opinion Editorials

COVID-19 and mask mandates: What we can and can’t control

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) A presidency can order a mask mandate, but as history shows, enforcement remains difficult. Could there be an incentive for COVID-19?

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Parent masking their child to protect from COVID-19

Did you know the United States government can’t actually enforce a nationwide speed limit? Seriously, I didn’t know this. The 55 MPH limit was something I vaguely remember from childhood, right on down to all the speedometers marking that number in its own color (usually red) to draw attention and denote special significance. I figured that was the deal and law of the land by way of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which shorthand states that federal law overrides state law if conflict exists.

While that much is true, the issue still boils down simply to enforcement – it’s not so much that there’s any question of legality, but difficulty in ensuring a mandate is followed. The government has the power to issue a new law, but smaller jurisdictions – states, counties, cities, etc. – are not held to any specific legal requirement to enforce it.

The polarization over COVID-19 pandemic is sharp and well pronounced, with both sides stressing their viewpoints with fervent belief. This debate has a storied history, with roots running all the way back to the influenza pandemic of 1918. I am not here to discuss either side directly – the goal is to address whether or not the federal government can effectively enforce a COVID-19 related mandate across the nation. As illustrated above, the answer is no. Similar situations have arisen in the last few decades on other matters that hinged on the fulcrum of personal freedom versus regulation.

Seat Belt Laws might be the most direct comparison, with a history that spans back into the late 60s. At that time, only 14 percent of drivers regularly wore seat belts. Similar to today, various laws were introduced by the National Highway Traffic State Administration that tried to enact new safety measures, including requiring passive safety belts in newly manufactured cars starting in 1968, a locking system that prevented cars from starting if a seat belt was not attached in 1973 (killed by Congress a year later), and automatic passive restraints (airbags or on-track seat belts that automatically engaged) in 1977.

Public and political backlash was intense, and the incoming Reagan administration issued its own deregulation-centric policies to fight against further legal measures. In the end, seat belts did become mandatory along with driver’s side airbags; only New Hampshire does not have a law as of today. Even so, the point here is that this fell to states to draft their own laws and then decide upon the level of enforcement (primary versus secondary); the federal government played a role in this (I’ll explain in a moment), but is not the ultimate arbiter.

Marijuana law is also analogous – the federal ruling is that the drug is outlawed, and will prosecute citizens from states that have made it legal (including situations deemed medical). Colorado has reported revenue in the tens of millions (more than alcohol sales, even), and numerous arguments have been made to try and have a federal law revision.

Drinking ages? Similar still – Congress did not enforce a minimum age of 21 until the passing of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. Despite states having the age at 18 or 19, many swiftly fell in line.

What do all of these – speed limits, seat belts, marijuana, and drinking – all have in common? Questions of enforcement and how to regulate it. Now, masks join this list of contentious argument.

So what can be done for COVID-19? Perhaps predictably, money becomes the primary motivator. How did the federal government respond to most of these situations? Through incentivizing – states that complied with the 55 MPH speed limit continued to receive their full funding from the Federal Highway Administration (Nevada famously lost all funding for calling the bluff in 1986). The opposite was also effective – states that did not raise their minimum drinking age were penalized via a reduction of road funding. While neither option could be classified as federally-driven enforcement, they demonstrate that there are still methods available to passively regulate the law of states.

The quick and simple way to think about this? Pizza parties. You got those in school when you read extra books or collected trash or sold candy bars. While teachers couldn’t explicitly force you to do any of those things, the promise of pizza was enough. The government has the right to legislate, but cannot enforce, but can use money to motivate.

So really, maybe all we need to do is get Taco Bell to hand out Doritos Locos Tacos to mask wearers preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Robert Snodgrass has an English degree from Texas A&M University, and wants you to know that yes, that is actually a thing. And now he's doing something with it! Let us all join in on the experiment together. When he's not web developing at Docusign, he runs distances that routinely harm people and is the kind of giant nerd that says "you know, there's a King of the Hill episode that addresses this exact topic".

Opinion Editorials

BIPOC Gen Zers are using TikTok to create cultural awareness

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) TikTok has become a platform for younger generations to share their cultures, paving the way for a more inclusive society. And they’re doing it one 15 second video at a time.

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Black person's hands holding a phone loading TikTok above a wooden table.

When scrolling on TikTok, you might come across this question posed by a BIPOC creator (Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color): “How old were you when you realized you weren’t ugly, you just lived in a predominantly White space?”

Growing up in predominantly White spaces myself with immigrant parents from the Middle East, I had a warped perspective of beauty. Straight light hair, fair skin, Western features, a stick-thin figure – I internalized my physical otherness as lack.

It wasn’t until I moved to a diverse city for college that I realized this. I saw others speaking different languages, eating ethnic foods and dressing however they wanted without fear of losing their proximity to Whiteness. Exposure to others who didn’t fit “the mold” was transformative for me.

As someone in their mid-twenties, I came of age with social media like Tumblr, Facebook and, ultimately, Instagram. But I’d be lying to you if I said that I didn’t wish TikTok was around when I was a kid.

For reference, most TikTok users are between 16-24, meaning that many are still in high school. While content on TikTok is really all over the place and specifically catered to your preferences (you can feel the algorithums at work as your scroll), one facet that I find integral to the app’s essence is Gen Z proudly showcasing their cultures – aka #culturecheck.

Besides the countless ethnic food tutorials (some of my favorite content on the app!), fashion has become a main way for BIPOC or immigrant TikTokers to fully express their identities and share their culture with other users on the app, regardless of physical location.

Take the #FashionEdit challenge, where creators lip sync to a mash-up of Amine’s “Caroline” and “I Just Did a Bad Thing” by Bill Wurtz as they transform from their everyday Western clothes into that of their respective culture.

In her famous video, Milan Mathew – the creator attributed to popularizing this trend – sits down in a chair. She edits the clip in such a way that as she sits, her original outfit switches to a baby-pink lehenga and she becomes adorned with traditional Indian jewelry. Denise Osei does the same, switching into tradition Ghanaian dress. If you can think of a culture or ethnicity, chances are they are represented in this TikTok trend.

This past Indigenous People’s Day, James Jones’ videos went viral across various social media platforms, as he transformed into his traditional garments and performed tribal dances.

Though the cultures and respective attire they showcase are unique in each video, the energy is all the same: proud and beautiful. Showing off what your culture wears has become a way to gain clout on the app and inspire others to do the same.

The beautiful thing about cultural/ethnic TikTok is that it isn’t just Mexicans cheering for other Mexicans, or Arabs cheering for other Arabs – the app sustains a general solidarity across racial and ethnic lines while cultivating an appreciation of world cultures.

But just how deep does that appreciation go? Some users think (and I agree) that “liking” a video of an attractive creator in traditional dress is hardly a radical move in dismantling notions of Western beauty.

While TikTok trends might not solve these issues entirely, it’s important to note that they are moving things in the right directions – I certainly never saw anything like this when I was growing up.

For whatever reason, Millennials, Gen X and Boomers seem to have a lot of shade to throw at Gen Z. But one thing is for certain – this young generation is paving the way for a more inclusive, more respectful society, which is something we should all get behind. And they’re doing it one 15 second video at a time.

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Opinion Editorials

This website is like Pinterest for WFH desk setups

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) If you’ve been working from home at the same, unchanged desk setup, it may be time for an upgrade. My Desk Tour has the inspiration you need.

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Man browsing desk setups on My Desk Tour

Whether you’re sitting, standing, or reclining your way through the pandemic, you’re most likely doing it from home these days. You’re also probably contending with an uninspired desk configuration hastily cobbled together in March, which—while understandable—might be bringing you down. Fortunately, there’s an easy, personable solution to spark your creativity: My Desk Tour.

My Desk Tour is a small website started by Jonathan Cai. On this site, you will find pictures of unique and highly customized desk setups; these desk configurations range from being optimized for gamers to coders to audiophiles, so there’s arguably something for everyone—even if you’re just swinging by to drool for a bit.

Cai also implements a feature in which site users can tag products seen in desk photos with direct links to Amazon so you don’t have to poke around the Internet for an hour in search of an obscure mouse pad. This is something Cai initially encountered on Reddit and, after receiving guidance from various subreddits on the issue of which mouse to purchase, he found the inspiration to create My Desk Tour.

The service itself is pretty light—the landing page consists of a few desk setup photos and a rotating carousel of featured configurations—but it has great potential to grow into a desk-focused social experience of sorts.

It’s also a great place to drop in on if you’re missing the extra level of adoration for your desk space that a truly great setup invokes. Since most people who have been working from home since the spring didn’t receive a ton of advance notice, it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of folks have resigned themselves to a boring or inefficient desk configuration. With a bit of inspiration from My Desk Tour, that can change overnight.

Of course, some of the desk options featured on the site are a bit over the top. One configuration boasts dual ultra-wide monitors stacked atop each other, and another shows off a monitor flanked by additional vertical monitors—presumably for the sake of coding. If you’re scrambling to stay employed, such a setup might be egregious.

If you’re just looking for a new way to orient your workspace for the next few months, though, My Desk Tour is worth a visit.

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Opinion Editorials

Popular opinion: Unemployment in a pandemic sucks [EDITORIAL]

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) I got laid off during the pandemic, and I think I can speak for all of us to say that unemployment – especially now – really, really sucks.

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Stressed man thinking over laptop about unemployment.

Despite not being in an office for what feels like an eternity, losing my job stung. Holding onto work during The Worst Timeline was rough, considering Rome was burning all around. My job was the boat of sanity I could sit in while the waves of bullshit crashed all around. Pre-pandemic, I had just separated from my wife, so my emotional health wasn’t in tip-top shape. But then millions of people go and get sick, the economy took a nosedive, and well, the world changed. When everything around you sucks, and people are on the news crying about unemployment and potential homelessness, you’re thankful as hell that you’re not with them – until you are.

I was writing for a startup, one that came with a litany of headaches thanks to fluctuating budgets and constant directional pivots, but it was steady work. When the Coronavirus hit, it was a scenario of “we’re going to get through this,” but as we switched gears again and again, I started to get an unsettling feeling: I’ve seen this story before. When you live in Austin and are in the creative field, you’ve worked with startups. And there are always trappings on when something lingers in the air – hierarchy shuffles, people aren’t as optimistic, and senior folks start quietly bailing out. Those are the obvious moves that make your unemployment-related Spidey sense tingle, but with COVID, everything is remote. There aren’t the office vibes, the shortened conversations that make you, “I know what’s happening here.” Instead, you’re checking Slack or email and surviving like everyone else.

We were happy to be working, to see the direct deposit hit every two weeks and sigh, knowing you were still in the fight, that you might see this thing through.

We saw our entire business change overnight. Leadership rose to meet the challenges of an old model rooted in hospitality, restaurants, and events, which died with a viral disease shotgun blast. Because the infrastructure was there, we managed to help out workers, and grocery stores work together to keep people fed across the nation. It was legitimately a point of pride. Like all things, though, the market settled. We bought time.

In July, I had a full-blown depressive episode. The weight of the divorce, the lack of human interaction, my work having less value, my career stalled felt like a Terminator robot foot on my skull. I couldn’t get out of bed, and everything I wrote were the smatterings of a broken man. And to my ex-bosses’ credit, my breakdown was NOT my best work, I could barely look at a computer, let alone forge thoughts on an entirely new industry with any authority, or even a fake it till you make it scenario.

When the CEO put time on my calendar, I knew it was a wrap. Startup CEOs don’t make house calls; they swing the ax. When you’re the lone creative in a company trying to survive a nearly company-killing event, you’re the head on the block. Creatives are expensive, and we’re expendable. Site copy, content, media placements, all that can kick rocks when developers need to keep the business moving, even if it’s at a glacial pace. When I was given my walking papers, it was an exhale, on one hand, I’d been professionally empty, but at the same time, I needed consistent money. My personal life was a minefield and I’ve got kids.

I got severance. Unemployment took forever to hit. The state of Texas authorized amount makes me cringe. Punishing Americans for losing their jobs during a crisis is appalling. Millions are without safety nets, and it’s totally ok with elected leaders.

There are deferments available. I had to get them on my credit cards, which I jacked up thanks to spending $8,500 on an amicable divorce, along with a new MacBook Pro that was the price of a used Nissan. I got a deferment on my car note, too.

I’ve applied to over 100 jobs, both remote and local. I’ve applied for jobs I’m overqualified for in hopes they’ll hire me as a freelancer. There are lots of rejection letters. I get to round two interviews. References or the round three interviews haven’t happened yet. I get told I’m too experienced or too expensive. Sometimes, recruiters won’t even show up. And then there are the Zoom meetings. Can we all agree we’re over Zoom? Sometimes, you don’t want to comb your hair.

I’ll get promised the much needed “next steps” and then a rejection email, “thanks but no thanks.” Could you at least tell me what the X-Factor for this decision was? Was there a typo? Did you check my Facebook? The ambiguity kills me. Being a broke senior creative person kills me. I interviewed President Obama and have written for Apple, but ask myself: Can I afford that falafel wrap for lunch? Do you think springing for the fries is worth that extra $3? You’ve got soup at home, you know.

I’m not unique. This is the American Experience. We’re stuck in this self-perpetuating hell. We keep looking for jobs. We want to work. There are only so many gigs to fill when there’s constant rollercoaster news on unemployment recovery. And as long as unemployment sucks, there’s going to be a lot of people bracing for impact come Christmas. Hopefully, the brass in Washington can pass a few bills and get us back to work. At least get Americans out of the breadline by pumping up what we’re surviving off of – across the board. Working people shouldn’t have to face getting sick to bring in an income, while casualties of the Corona War should be able to look at their bills and not feel like the assistant on the knife throwers wheel.

I’m about to be a line cook to make extra cash till an intrepid manager hires me. Who doesn’t want a writer working the grill who reads French existentialist essays for enjoyment? I’d rather sit on park benches and day dream, but that ain’t reality. I’ve got bills to pay in a broken America. Who wants a burger? Deep thoughts come free but an extra slice of cheese is extra.

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