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Face masks have been at the center of a debate over the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic since the early days of the outbreak.
In March, public health officials told Americans not to buy masks because their effectiveness in preventing viral transmission was unproven and out of fear that there would be mask shortages for health care workers. A growing body of scientific evidence has led many epidemiologists to believe that the early messaging on masks was faulty. The past few months have provided ample evidence that widespread mask wearing could play a significant role in controlling the outbreak.
In response, an increasing number of state and local governments have made masks mandatory for all indoor activities and outdoor activities when social distancing isn’t possible. These orders have been met with vocal resistance. Viral videos of confrontations at stores involving customers who refuse to wear a mask surface regularly. Some local law enforcement officials have defied governors by refusing to enforce mask rules.
Despite the pushback, some lawmakers have called for a nationwide mask mandate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said a federal mask requirement is “long overdue.” The Democratic governors of New Jersey and Illinois have also called for a national mandate. Both President Trump and Vice President Pence have expressed opposition to the idea. “Certainly a national mandate is not in order,” White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said.
Why there’s debate
Advocates for a national mask mandate say it would make a major difference in the country’s ability to control the virus and allow for other restrictions to be lifted. One study predicted that widespread mask wearing could save up to 33,000 lives by October. A small number of people who aggressively oppose mask rules shouldn’t be allowed to dictate policies that could benefit all Americans, supporters argue.
Having mask rules be decided by state and city governments undercuts what should be a national strategy for fighting the outbreak and creates room for local officials to make unsafe decisions based on political pressure, some experts say. A mask mandate could also have a major economic impact. Masks would make it possible to safely reopen more businesses and prevent an even more severe economic downturn, one analysis found.
The most vocal opponents of mask requirements say the rules are a violation of personal freedom. There are also questions about whether a national mask mandate would make much of a difference in preventing viral spread. Many of the most affected parts of the country already require masks. Forcing a mandate for people in areas with few cases would be unnecessary government overreach, some argue.
Others say a federal mandate would be pointless, and that opinions on masks are so entrenched for many people at this point, even a new nationwide rule is unlikely to change minds and may even cause a backlash.
Wearing a mask is a small inconvenience with enormous benefits
“Now I understand, sometimes masks can be a little uncomfortable. But the bottom line is that we know that masks reduce infections and they save lives. ... These are basic public health measures that I think should be implemented across the country. It’s not that inconvenient. And if it helps us stay open and avoid our hospitals getting overwhelmed, it feels to me like it’s well worth the cost.” — Dr. Ashish Jha to “Today”
A mask mandate might have prevented the current surge in coronavirus cases
“I’ve spoken to several infectious disease experts who say that if we had had a national mask mandate as the shelter-in-place restrictions were lifted, we may not be in the situation that we’re in now with this continued rise in cases.” — Allison Aubrey, NPR
The politicization of masks has made the pandemic much worse than it needed to be
“Like too much else in our country, this issue has been politicized, egged on by a president whose inexplicable refusal to wear a mask sets a terrible example. Unfortunately, his actions gave cover for too many Republican governors to bow to the strident voices opposed to government restrictions on personal liberty, rather than calling on all of us to act on our personal responsibility to protect others.” — Karen Hughes, Washington Post
A national mask mandate would prevent even more severe economic impacts
“If a face mask mandate meaningfully lowers coronavirus infections, it could be valuable not only from a public health perspective but also from an economic perspective because it could substitute for renewed lockdowns that would otherwise hit [gross domestic product].” — Goldman Sachs economist Jan Hatzius
The economy will benefit if people feel safe
“I very much want to travel but I’m not going to fly until I know that everybody has a mask on because that is how you protect yourself. To have mask optional is like saying, ‘Hey, Covid optional.’” — Jim Cramer, CNBC
A mask mandate could backfire
“The most obvious path to universal masking is to pass laws and punish infractions. But enforcing legal edicts to wear masks in public can be difficult and costly, and amid widespread ambivalence can lead to backlash and even violence. So edicts are not a complete solution.” — Angela Duckworth, Lyle Ungar and Ezekiel J. Emanuel, New York Times
A national mandate won’t increase mask usage
“Even if you mandate and people are mandating them, I don't think it's necessarily going to convince people really or even force people to wear them. We need to convince, as opposed to compel or mandate,” — Health expert Craig Spencer to NBC News
Masks are less important than public debate makes them seem
“I hope that people don't get too distracted by the mask issue alone and let that distract them from being angry at the government for failing to find more testing and tracing so that we can implement a modern public health response. Masks help slow the spread, but a well-funded and coordinated testing strategy is the foundation of that modern response that we know is far more effective even than mask wearing.” — Lindsay Wiley, NPR
Masks can lead to racial profiling
“There’s no doubt at this point that masks keep people safer from COVID-19. But certain types of masks may also be putting young Black men in danger of harassment or profiling.” — Political scientist Marc Hetherington to FiveThirtyEight
Americans have lost faith in their government’s virus response
“I suspect that the days of widespread compliance with do-it-or-else mandates meant to curb COVID-19 are over. Government officials will have to go against their instincts and learn that, instead of commanding, they have to be satisfied with the results of polite requests.” — J.D. Tuccille, Reason
A national mask mandate would be difficult to enforce
“The lack of meaningful early intervention also means that at this point, with the mask wars well underway, any kind of national mask mandate would be a difficult thing to carry out.” — J.C. Pan, New Republic
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