To wear a mask, or to not? That shouldn’t be the question. However, it appears to be one of the heated political questions running amok in the U.S. while there seems to be no end in sight of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Cases continue to rise exponentially in the U.S., while other industrialized nations seem to have a better grip on how to control the outbreaks.1 Thus, it begs to question what is the difference between these other nations and the United States? How are they continuing to “flatten the curve” when we seem to be steadily hiking up a figurative mountain that could lead to millions of unnecessary deaths? I don’t believe there is one single action, but a combination of several actions taken that allows these other nations to better control the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite this, we know one major difference between the U.S. and other countries is the social acceptance of face coverings.
While the rest of the world seems to be mostly compliant in wearing face coverings in public, the U.S. has a large population of people who refuse to mask up.2 The anti-mask proponents I encounter tout “freedom”, “liberty”, and sometimes co-opt the “my body, my choice” rhetoric used to defend a woman’s right reproductive rights (despite the fact that many of these folks do not believe a woman should have reproductive rights). When pressed for the scientific research that informs their decision to not wear a mask in public these anti-maskers generally resolve the discourse with: “we will agree to disagree” or “you do you, and I will do me.” For the life of me, I cannot understand why it is such a large problem for people to wear masks in public? At worst, they wore a piece of fabric on their faces for no reason. At best, they saved another person’s life. Where is the limit on personal freedom when that freedom infringes on another person’s right to live?
The scientific research clearly shows the benefits of universal mask wearing when coupled with social distancing and hand washing. Chu, et. al. examined the effects of physical distance, face masks, and eye protection on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 in health-care and community settings and:
found evidence of moderate certainty that current policies of at least 1 m physical distancing are probably associated with a large reduction in infection, and that distances of 2 m might be more effective, as implemented in some countries…Wearing face masks was also acceptable and feasible. Policy makers at all levels should, therefore, strive to address equity implications for groups with currently limited access to face masks and eye protection.3
As well, the article, “Face Masks Against COVID-19: An Evidence Review,” authors conducted another study to determine the benefits of mask wearing and found:
The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low (italics mine)4
The key phrase is “compliance is high” which means that it should not be a question whether or not policymakers pass legislation to require face masks in public for all.
One of the issues, then, is the divide between states who require all citizens to wear face coverings and states that take an employee-only approach.The article, “Community Use of Face Masks and COVID-19: Evidence From a Natural Experiment of State Mandates in the US” published on June 16, 2020 compares the COVID-19 growth rates between states that mandated masks and those that took an employee-only covering approach. In this natural study, the authors found “a significant decline in daily COVID-19 growth rate after mandating facial covers in public, with the effect increasing over time after signing the order” The study used the daily case rate decline in conjunction with a model to estimate “that as many as 230,000-450,000 cases may have been averted due to these mandates by May 22.” Conversely, and most importantly, it found “no evidence of decline in daily COVID-19 growth rates with the employee-only mandate”5
Many policy makers have seen the research, and know the benefits of masks. Yet they continue to leave it to people to make a choice because they do not see a way to require and regulate face coverings. It makes no sense though because we have found ways to require people to wear seatbelts, to require people to wear pants, and to require people to not drink and drive among other regulations. Yes, there are still people who go rogue and refuse (here is looking at you Lady Gaga in your anti-pants stance)6, but…but…overall compliance is higher because of the laws or social contract we build with each other, to protect each other. Another excuse policymakers give for not requiring face coverings in public is the constitutionality of mask mandates. I get it, but the first amendment of the Bill of Rights also gives me the freedom to request the government to FIX A PROBLEM. And Houston….WE HAVE A PROBLEM (Pun totally intended)7.
If policymakers saddle up, and do what is right for the people…do what the scientists and experts say can help reduce the spread of COVID-19…Make the hard choices…then we might:
- Save lives
- Save the economy
- Get back to normal
Yes, people should opt to be a good neighbor. Yes, people should opt to make a small sacrifice and be a little uncomfortable for the good of others. Yes, people should be altruistic and empathize with those at high risk. Overwhelmingly, though, it does not look like that is happening in the U.S., and so it is time to legislate.
Why? Because some of us are scared. I am one month away from having to go back into the classroom. Teaching is my calling, and I know that to be true. But I never thought I would have to choose to teach over seeing my father (who is in the high risk population). I never thought I would have to choose between teaching and protecting my family from an invisible and pervasive virus. Maybe I would feel better about this if my state’s Department of Education was on the ball and released guidelines in May or June to give school districts time to figure it out. To then pass on the guidance to their schools, but that is not what happened. They gave one month notice and no money to ask the schools to do the impossible.
So, no. No, I do not feel good about going back to the classroom in August. No, I do not feel good sending my 2 year old to daycare. Especially when I am going to have to face parents who refuse to make their child wear a mask in MY classroom for no other reason than “freedom”, “liberty”, and “my choice.” I guess it is just a product of our society that continues to only send “thoughts and prayers” after every school shooting and not legislate change to protect our children. How much death do we need to witness until we are able to see the errors of our ways? Le sigh.