Why even mask skeptics should want to wear them
A handful of states have mandated mask use in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and many smaller entities both public and private — various municipal governments, Uber, Costco, airlines, my local hardware store — have too. Polling shows about three in four Americans think this is a sound plan and intend to wear a mask most or all of the time in public. But that still leaves another quarter of the country opposed, including about 15 percent who reported, in another survey, they have not even considered donning a mask.
Distaste for masking is understandable (I resisted for a while), and it's true the scientific evidence for its efficacy is not unassailable. But consistent public mask usage in the short-term has advantages whatever we think about its efficacy and the wisdom of stay-at-home orders. It could help us re-open our economy, a goal we all share even as we differ on how and when it should happen.
The plaints against masking are several. Perhaps the most common (and distinctly American) is the idea that wearing a mask signals sheepish subservience to an overreaching state. "Adding to my post-lockdown predictions," libertarian author Jeffrey Tucker tweeted Saturday, "the face mask will be rightly regarded as a symbol of obsequious obedience and grotesque compliance with arbitrary and ignorant authority." After initially promoting masks, Fox News host Laura Ingraham has rebranded them as a means of exerting "social control over large populations" through "fear and intimidation." Rush Limbaugh told his listeners it's become "clear that the mask is a symbol of fear."
For some in the anti-mask crowd, this is less about principle than partisan politics, a symptom of what my colleague Damon Linker has described as the decision of some on the right "to allow the culture war to swallow everything else in our public life." As the left generally considers COVID-19 a serious threat to public health, that adversarial mindset dictates downplaying it. This seems a plausible explanation of Vice President Mike Pence's now-recanted decision not to wear a mask while visiting the Mayo Clinic. Pence's initial rationale — that he wanted to be able to make eye contact while thanking health-care workers — is certainly flimsy, and the vice president has a history of staged political performance.
Then there are the cultural reasons, often reflexive and inchoate. An Arizona journalist reports being told masks look "weak — especially for men." An Ohio lawmaker refused to wear a mask on the grounds that "we are all created in the image and likeness of God" — a basic, uncontroversial Jewish and Christian doctrine — and this "image is seen the most by our face" — an odd, extrabiblical understanding of the Imago Dei. His comment may be generously read as an inarticulate variation of the argument of National Review's Michael Brendan Dougherty that masks "will always feel like an imposition" in the West, where our culture has "inherited the view that God meets us face to face, because a face is where our personhood is incarnate in the world."
I don't have much patience for petty partisanship or selfish machismo. Owning the libs or looking "strong" are callow, indefensible reasons not to take a simple precaution that could save someone from death or long-term lung damage.
But I am sympathetic to those taking the freedom or culture line against masks. I agree some of the mitigation mandates have been excessive, and I worry about emergency impositions on our liberty being made permanent. I also feel extremely uncomfortable wearing a mask — like I've worn a costume, only to realize it's not a costume party. That most other people are also wearing masks somehow doesn't change the strangeness of it.
I'm wearing a mask in public anyway though, and everyone else should too, especially those who believe we need to re-open the economy now. One reason is there's good cause to think the masks actually help. The masks widely available don't do a lot to protect you as the wearer, but they can protect other people if you're an unwitting carrier of the virus. Again, this protection isn't certain — but it seems nothing about this bizarre illness is certain.
Perhaps the more compelling reason, then, is that a critical mass of the U.S. population believes masks are prudent. Three in four Americans are pro-mask. Based on observed mask usage rates, I suspect that number is a bit high, but it's still the case that a large proportion of Americans think it's safer to be out and about in public, shopping or going to church or having fun, if everyone is masked.
And here's the thing: Lockdown orders aren't the only reason normal business is suspended. People stopped going to restaurants before the government told them to stop.
Allowing businesses, churches, and recreational spaces to re-open doesn't do any good if most of the public is unwilling to go to them because they believe doing so puts themselves or their loved ones at risk. You might think their risk calculation is wrong and their trust in masking is stupid, but your opinion doesn't change the reality that you need all those wrong, stupid people to get the economy going again. The economy will not be open — in the real world, as opposed to in the pages of state edict — unless people feel safe. And for a significant subset of the population, masks feel safe.
So whether you think masking is helpful in and of itself or you simply want to get on with normal life, wear a mask in public for now. It feels weird. I get it. But, worst case scenario, you feel silly for a few months so your neighbors feel safe and your friends can save their business from being run into the ground.
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