Talking Points

A smart metric for when to drop mask mandates

The United States is "turning the corner" on COVID-19, Jeff Zients, President Biden's pandemic coordinator, said on CNN Sunday. Case and death rates are way down as vaccines become increasingly accessible. Rules are relaxing — but what about mask mandates?

As of this writing, 25 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and some cities and counties within the other 25 states still mandate public mask use. Many of those mandates are open-ended, but five states — Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and West Virginia — have hit upon a metric that could be the political sweet spot.

That metric is 70 percent adult vaccination. It looks a little different in each state. In Michigan, the mask mandate will be lifted two weeks after 70 percent of residents age 16 and older are fully vaccinated. In Minnesota, the mandate ends at 70 percent of Minnesotans 16 and older or July 1, whichever comes first. (It will probably be the vaccination goal.) In Pennsylvania, it's 70 percent of residents 18 and up. In Vermont, it's at least one dose for 60 to 70 percent of all Vermonters and 70 to 85 percent of Vermonters 16 and up. And in West Virginia, it's partial vaccination for 70 percent of residents 16 and older.

This number is a little bit arbitrary from a public health perspective, because there's no firm scientific consensus on how much of the population needs to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity for COVID-19. However, 70 percent is about average for expert estimates on this, and of course it will be supplemented by natural immunity in the millions who already survived the virus.

But politically, the 70 percent metric (especially the single-dose version) is a great idea. It's not my first choice for an endgame, but it's good and should be acceptable even in more cautious blue states and cities. It should allay fears of recklessness while also encouraging vaccination among the casually vaccine hesitant. Polling recently reported by The New York Times showed the ability to go maskless is a strong incentive for vaccination for many Americans — and after last month's pause in distribution of the Johnson & Johnson shot apparently scared many fence-sitters away from vaccination, a strong incentive is what we need.