“The rest of the world looks to America as the beacon of hope for freedom and opportunity. We Americans take that for granted,” Henry Kriegel (center blue suite) said during an Americans for Prosperity interview. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Fighting for liberty

The other side of the mask debate

With microphone in hand, Henry Kriegel addressed the people gathered at the impromptu town hall held after the postponed Gallatin City-County board of health meeting. He told them that real change does not come from attending one gathering. Real change comes from the legislature. It comes from sustained effort through activism to effect policy.

This sort of activism has been present for the bulk of his adult life – a passion created to honor the legacy of his family. He is first generation American; the son of Polish immigrants. His father fought for the Resistance as a captain while his mother survived eight labor camps during World War II. They met again once they immigrated to the United States. His father went from laboring as a fabric cutter to owning an interior design business that expanded throughout New York City and thrived for over 50 years. They never forgot where they came from. Kreigel never forgot either.

“Their legacy of what life was like living under complete and total oppression – and really genocide – and coming to America to pursue freedom and opportunity is what inspired me to engage in what I do,” he said.

As the community engagement director for Americans For Prosperity–Montana, he said that although the policy-focused organization has been commonly labeled a conservative organization, it is actually by definition non-partisan and difficult to pigeonhole.

“Some of our policies would be considered right of center and some would be considered left of center,” he said. For example, the organization was opposed to Obamacare and Medicaid expansion “because we thought they were bad health policies and bad economic policies.” Americans for Prosperity has also worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and advocated on the state and national levels for bipartisan criminal justice reform and policing reforms.

“We advocate for policies that promote mutual benefit, equal rights, openness/transparency, and self-actualization,” he said.

While some Americans see placing a cloth mask over their faces as no big deal, Kriegel is one of a contingent of people who view it as a major affront to civil liberties. He actually has a health condition that prevents him from wearing a mask. He wishes that message was more commonly shared – that some people simply cannot wear them.

“Share the information of the benefits of wearing the masks, share the information for best practices to keep people healthy and then let individuals and businesses make those decisions,” he said. “The best way to implement anything is the bottom-up. Top-down mandates are just not effective. Blanket one-side fits all is not practical and not effective and does have other unintended consequences.”

He discussed what he deemed the “false choice presented in the beginning” which was to stay healthy and stay home or to go to work.

“We think both could have been done effectively. Essential businesses stayed open: Home Depot, Lowe’s, grocery stores, so why couldn’t other businesses stay open?,” he asked. “I’m sure a small retail shop is considered essential by the people who own it, and the people who work there consider it essential – and the family members who are dependent on the income of those who work there would consider it essential.”

He said adaptability and flexibility needs to be built into the healthcare system. The “radical switch” to having major hospitals and healthcare centers take care of COVID patients in Montana when there weren’t very many caused hospitals to lose money, deny elective surgeries that were critical and furlough workers.

“We do take it seriously, but there are ways of addressing the concern without these significant unintended consequences as a result,” he said.

As for the mask meeting that had to be rescheduled due to overcrowding, he said many peoples’ reactions were emotionally based and there is room for improvement on all sides.

“We could have been directed to kindly separate out a bit and if you want to speak lineup behind the microphones and if we need to extend into the hallway, we can,” he said. “I don’t think they anticipated that kind of reaction.”

He believes the remedies to the mask debate are legislative.

“I think we’ve got to make it clearer and I think we’ve got to limit the authority that one person has – the governor – in issuing these directives,” he said.

Emotional reactions at the board of health meeting about face coverings were symptoms of a greater issue.

“We need to unite, not divide people,” he said. “What we are going to have here is divisiveness between those who wear face masks and those who don’t.”

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