COVID-19, Oregon Politics, Politics

Enraged Forest

In what might be the most pathetic manifestation of mask rage yet, beloved Oregon theme park Enchanted Forest was forced to delay its long-anticipated reopening indefinitely. The reason? Threats of violence were made against park staffers and guests. Who made the threats? People who have allowed their anger at the mask issue to turn them into thugs.

Located on a moss-lined forest hillside just south of Salem, Enchanted Forest opened to the public in 1971 after its creator, Roger Tofte — now in his 90s — devoted years to building the park by hand. The Tofte family still operates the park, boasting three generations involved in the park’s daily operations. Like many families, the Toftes suffered under the constraints of COVID, Enchanted Forest’s severely restricted 2020 season sinking the previously debt-free park into arrears. A successful GoFundMe drive brought immediate relief but the park must reopen if it is to survive. If COVID restrictions weren’t enough, the Tofte family was hit with an unspeakable tragedy in September 2020 when Roger Tofte’s 13-year-old great grandson, Wyatt Tofte, died in the Beachie Creek Fire. The boy is credited with trying to save his maternal grandmother, Peggy Mosso. His mother, Angie Mosso, was badly injured in the blaze.

Like many businesses eager to reopen, Enchanted Forest announced it would follow Oregon Health Authority guidelines when it reopened on Saturday, May 22. Shamefully, this simple announcement enraged some people who are deeply opposed to COVID constraints, even when those guidelines are issued by the state, not the park. The park, like most of us, isn’t trying to make a political statement — the Toftes just want to be responsible, keeping their guests safe, erring on the side of caution.

Now, thanks to people with anger control and maturity problems, the Enchanted Forest reopening has been delayed indefinitely. What an embarrassment. But we’ll get back to this in a moment.

Before I continue, allow me to make two points.

First, if you’re one of the morons who made these threats against Enchanted Forest or if you’re an imbecile who believes such threats are justified, quit reading now — this isn’t for you. However, everyone else — everyone who is appalled by how polarized we’ve become, by how ridiculous we’re acting — please read on, regardless of which side you lean toward.

Second, I am going to make some broad statements here, opinions I’ve formed from research and observation. I believe them to be true but they can be difficult to quantify. These statements will almost certainly annoy (or even anger, since rage is all the rage these days) people of various perspectives but they’re simply my opinions. My opinions may be off, skewed or even wrong. On the other hand, perhaps there is some truth to them. My intent is not to challenge anyone’s deeply-held beliefs, but to simply provide another view. Like most of life, I think the truth usually lies nearer the center than the loudest voices from either side would have us believe. I chose the course of action I felt best suited my circumstances — I tried to err on the side of caution. It will not be productive for me to engage with anyone who wants to argue.

I believe one point on which almost everyone can agree is that this whole COVID year was a mess on nearly every level.

Six or eight weeks into the event, I collected and collated preliminary infection / death figures and ran my own numbers. It was early and, like everyone else, I was pretty much guessing. I wanted to hone my own rough figures as the event went on but just a few weeks after I calculated that first set, I found I couldn’t get anywhere close to accurate counts of anything. And it only got worse. Protocols for reporting varied from state to state and no nationwide standard was ever closely followed.

The COVID event became politicized very quickly, which made matters much worse. Any hope I had for clear guidelines we could all embrace disappeared very early on. Eventually, several polls established that people on the left were significantly overstating COVID’s peril while people on the right significantly understated it.

As a member of at least two at-risk groups, I was compelled to take the recommended COVID precautions seriously. My household effectively quarantined for the year. It’s important to note that, while we took strong measures, I never automatically expected everyone else to follow suit. I knew the precautions people would choose to embrace would run the gamut. However, I read as much professional research and opinion as I could, so we could plot the proper course for the household.

In short, I came to accept that COVID was worse than the flu, that it was an infection worth taking steps to avoid, that people in certain risk groups stood an alarming chance of death if infected, that a very large group of physicians, virologists and infectious disease specialists were taking COVID-19 deadly seriously.

Which brings us to baselines.

In an orderly society, every controversial issue is supported by baselines. Baselines are a set of facts on which all sides agree. Baselines are the collection of dispassionate details that define an issue before any one-sided spin is applied. Baselines are necessary to order — until recently, Americans haven’t had trouble accepting our baselines.

I was a graphic artist, writer and editor for the length of my career. Just as I would expect a scientific researcher to defer to me in editorial matters or details of design — fields in which I possess proven expertise — I must accede to the rulings of credentialed biologists or infectious disease specialists who have experience and expertise in virology when I consider COVID. I have no choice but to accept the declarations and recommendations of those who’ve devoted careers to understanding viruses, even if, for whatever reason, I disagree with them in principle. They’re the experts in this case, not me. And enough of them have reached consensus that I have no sensible choice but to follow their instructions.

The pragmatic part of me likened some of our COVID constraints to sacrifices Americans made during wartime. Gasoline and food were rationed, blackouts were enforced and even some mail was censored. Were we giving up our freedom to make those sacrifices? Maybe a tiny bit. But we looked upon these small sacrifices as necessary for the common good, an act of patriotism and wholly temporary, even if they did last the course of the conflict.

That’s how I saw the hated mask — yes, I don’t like it either. It fogs my glasses, it causes my glasses to fall off, it gets messy, some don’t fit properly. But I saw it as a small step I could take. I have a mask exemption so I could’ve opted out, but I didn’t. I wore the mask. I’m still wearing one when I go out.

A mask mandate is only as good as the discipline with which people follow it. If people use the wrong kind of masks, use soiled masks, wear masks incorrectly, forget them or eschew them altogether, then a mask mandate means little. In a free society, can we force everyone to properly wear a mask? Can we police the type of mask? We already know there are large numbers of people who will refuse. Does that mean those of us who are willing should stop? Absolutely not. But I’m not sure turning store clerks into mask police and accepting fistfights at Walmart are viable options.

What about vaccination? In 1980, smallpox was declared globally eradicated. Polio will likely be eradicated in the next ten years. Both will be the result of worldwide vaccination. If not for vaccines, these diseases would still ravage millions of lives.

But aren’t the COVID vaccines weird or dangerous or untested? I wanted to know so I avoided propaganda and hysteria, instead going back to experts in immunology. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines demonstrated an efficacy of 94 percent to 95 percent in preventing COVID-19–associated illness. Side effects were mostly mild to moderate and more common after the second dose.

What about that weird mRNA thing — isn’t it some untested new thing that changes our DNA? No. Again, it’s important to avoid the rumors, propaganda and hysteria so I looked to Johns Hopkins, one of the world’s top medical research institutions. According to Johns Hopkins, the mRNA technology behind the coronavirus vaccines has been in development for almost 20 years. Vaccine makers created the technology to respond quickly to a new pandemic illness, such as COVID-19. Further, the vaccines are designed to help the body’s immune system fight the coronavirus using messenger RNA. The RNA from Pfizer and Moderna vaccines does enter cells, but not the nucleus of the cells where DNA resides. The mRNA causes the cell to make a protein to stimulate the immune system, and then it quickly breaks down — without affecting DNA.

Addressing two more false rumors, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were not developed using fetal tissue. They do not contain microchips or tracking devices. The Roman Catholic Church has approved both without reservation.

Don’t take my word for it — Johns Hopkins offers excellent science-based, apolitical, propaganda-free, plain-language web resources to dispel the myths around the COVID vaccines.

For what it’s worth, I have always supported a religious exemption to vaccination — I still support it. But we must remember that vaccination requires at least 70 percent participation to provide adequate efficacy throughout our population. Vaccine exemptions and opt-outs must remain less than 30 percent — the alternatives will please no one.

None of us know all the COVID facts for sure — this was demonstrated countless times over the last year when the public was presented with conflicting or constantly-changing information. But uncertainty doesn’t mean we should just wash our hands of the whole thing — on the contrary, uncertainty points to erring on the side of caution. I know there are a lot of angrily passionate people out there on both sides of this issue but I am equally certain there are many more like me who want to do the right thing but are torn in different directions because we don’t have long-term answers. If we’re worried about doing the right thing, we should listen to the people who are experts — researchers who are in the best position to tell us what to expect. In the end, erring on the side of caution might save lives at the reasonble cost of inconvenience.

Speaking to the economic cost, if you ask me, this was a failed experiment from the perspective of commerce. Next time — and there will undoubtedly be a next time — we’ll need to figure out a compromise, a way to preserve public health without killing education and economic endeavors.

Meanwhile, families like the Toftes remain in limbo, unable to reopen because people angry at the state’s guidelines are taking out their wrath on business owners who are just trying to do the right thing.

To the Toftes, following guidelines from the Oregon Health Authority seemed to be the best option to keep guests safe with minimal inconvenience. So the park announced masks would be required except for fully vaccinated guests who could prove vaccination status. Enchanted Forest then received a deluge of social media comments and phone calls. About half of the public feedback was resoundingly positive, according to Roger Tofte’s daughter, Susan Vaslev, who serves as a park manager. But Vaslev told Willamette Week the other half of the feedback was anything but.

“A huge portion of the people were very angry,” said Vaslev. “Angry is very mild — they were outraged.” Vaslev said the park is desperate to reopen but the threats against the park were extensive enough that managers made the decision to cancel the reopening. In its statement, management underscored that “its commitment to being a place where families can spend time together free of unnecessary hate and conflict simply outweighs our strong desire to reopen our business.”

While I understand the chaotic nature of COVID information and mis-information and the passions running high on both sides, I have nothing but scorn for the fools who believe threatening a struggling business with violence is acceptable. And over a stupid mask. What a colossal embarrassment.

Let’s put this in perspective. A private business is asking you to wear a mask if you do not wish to show a vaccination card. Like any U.S. business owner, they may tell you “no shirt, no shoes, no service” only now it might be “no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service.” This is the right of the business owner. It has always been their right. It’s absolutely ridiculous to threaten a business with violence when the business is simply following state guidelines. And even if they weren’t, private businesses have placed small restrictions on their customers for hundreds of years. It is their right. COVID doesn’t change this.

I hope those who made threats of violence against a struggling family business feel shame. I hope they are embarrassed by their childish but dangerous intimidation. I hope they feel guilty for costing the business a considerable sum at a time when nearly all small businesses are suffering.

And I hope those folks who have been hesitant to get vaccinated or fearful of rumors surrounding the vaccines will look at this incident and realize the caliber of people who are behind the hysteria and false information.

File photo collage