One of the craziest, most contentious issues we have faced during this coronavirus crisis has been the issue of wearing masks. One aspect has been the debate over the effectiveness wearing masks has on preventing infection, but the real point of contention (which has led to all the other problems) is the question of whether or not the government has the power to force you to wear a mask.
Before I start, let me concede that wearing a mask (depending on the type and whether it is worn properly) can “help” prevent the spread of covid-19. I will also concede that wearing a mask can also “help” prevent the spread of the flu…and the common cold…and any number of infectious diseases. It is also true that wearing a hat and sunscreen when you go outside will help prevent skin cancer, and wearing closed-toed shoes and long pants when walking in the woods will help prevent poison ivy and lyme disease from tick bites.
I will even go further and concede that not beating my head repeatedly against a brick wall will help prevent the rapid onset of severe headaches.
All of this is good advice you could most likely receive from any qualified doctor as ways to protect your health. The problem we have comes when the government decides it has both the responsibility, and the authority, to order you to follow this advice, especially when most masks in common use are not that great at doing what they are supposed to do.
Effectiveness of Common Masks
The only mask out there that provides rock solid prevention is the N-95 mask, but you only see a bare handful of those running around. The most common masks seen on the streets are cloth masks, some of them custom store bought items like the one pictured above on sale at Amazon.com. Others are the papery surgical-looking masks (but aren’t really surgical masks). There are also the nylon tubes that people wear around their necks and pull up to cover the lower half of their face, and then there is my favorite – the bandanna tied around one’s face as if one were in the old west ready to rob the stagecoach. All that’s missing is the cowboy hat and the six-shooters.
Most of these kinds of masks don’t provide anything but the most basic prevention at stopping particles from traveling outside the mask. A study of the effectiveness of different masks showed that most cloth masks only stop between 30-40% of particles from escaping the mask. This number climbs up to between 70-80% if they have a pantyhose-like lining to make the fit more snug. A key point to remember about this study is that, even with the poor results, those results are dependent on people wearing the mask properly and based on my personal observations that doesn’t happen very often.
As I walk around in stores I often see masks that are loose or even worn down below the nose. In some cases I have seen people sucking the mask into their mouth and chewing it. I saw one couple the other day wearing custom masks that only tied at the top and allowed the bottom to flap around in the breeze.
In all these cases, the prevention benefit of wearing these masks is near zero.
In fact, the World Health Organization does not recommend the widespread use of non-medical masks by healthy persons. According to their Q&A on masks from their website, “there has been limited evidence on their effectiveness and WHO does not recommend their widespread use among the public for control of COVID-19.” The only time they recommend the use of non-medical masks is when people cannot effectively socially distance, and that is more of an “it couldn’t hurt” position.
There are real problems that can arise from the widespread use of cloth masks. According to a bulletin on the topic in April, the WHO pointed out that widespread use of masks can lead to the following risks:
- Self-contamination that can occur by touching and reusing contaminated masks;
- Depending on the type of mask used, potential breathing difficulties;
- A false sense of security, leading to potentially less adherence to other preventive measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene;
- A diversion of mask supplies and consequent shortage of mask for health care workers;
- A diversion of resources from effective public health measures, such as hand hygiene;
I seriously doubt most people are taking those fancy $20 masks they are buying and giving them a thorough washing after every use. For most people that mask most likely goes from their pocket to their face and back to their pocket again, or the console of their car, day after day. At that point you are just walking around with a repository for germs that you place on your mouth every time you walk into a store.
So if non-medical masks do not provide the protection most people believe they provide, and can actually create opportunities for people to infect themselves, why is the government mandating we wear them?
Because they make people FEEL safer.
There is a phenomenon called “the placebo effect” where a person is given something innocuous (like sugar water), but they are told it is medicine. Usually this is done as a control element for testing new drugs, but in many cases the person given the placebo begins to feel better. In other cases the body will actually heal itself because the person has convinced themselves they have been given real medicine. In my opinion that is what we have with the masks. As the shutdowns end people need to go back out into the world. They need to go to work. They need to go back to their regular economic activity if we are to have a hope of getting the economy to recover, but they have been told for months to stay at home or risk death which has many people concerned. If they are too afraid to interact with people they will not go out.
Enter the mask mandate.
By telling everyone to wear a mask they are telling people they have a way to re-enter society safely, giving them the security to go out and contribute to the economy once again. By mandating that everyone has to wear one they give people the reassurance they will not be the only ones out there wearing masks and reducing the risk people will feel too embarrassed to wear one in public.
The mandate to wear masks may have been meant with the best intentions, but it has created it’s own new social stigma, increased tensions, and raises a serious question about governmental overreach.
Can the Governor order you to wear a mask?
The short answer is no, and even though he issued the order requiring people to wear them, the Governor knows he doesn’t have that power. You can tell in the way he worded the order by only limiting it to indoor use and putting the Health Dept. in charge of enforcement. The Health Dept. has no police powers over individuals, but it does have the ability to prohibit a business from operating, and whereas the Governor cannot force you to wear a mask, a store owner CAN force you to wear one to enter their store.
A private business has the authority to grant entrance or exclude people based on numerous factors. The old, “no shirt, no shoes, no service” maxim applies here. If a business owner feels it is in their best interests to protect the safety of their employees or their customers, they can require people entering their stores to wear masks. Unfortunately, the Governor is taking that choice out of the hands of business owners and is using the Health Dept. to essentially hold a gun to their heads. Require masks or we will close you down.
What the Governor has done is essentially told YOU to wear a mask, and then made local businesses enforce his orders. This is putting store clerks on the front lines of policing our population to enforce an order that angers people and makes no sense. Consider the contradictory and self-defeating aspects of this order:
- Children 10 and under are exempt from wearing a mask. We are told that wearing masks is not to protect you from getting the virus, but to prevent you from giving the virus to someone else. Children are not in real danger of dying from the disease, but they can certainly catch it and spread it. So why are they exempt?
- You have to wear a mask to enter a restaurant, but you can take it off as soon as you reach your table where you will begin eating and drinking. Of course, this is when you are touching your face and most likely sending particles from your mouth.
- You have to wear a mask to enter a health club, yet you are not required to wear one when you are exercising which is when you are sweating and breathing heavily. Again, heavier breathing and sweating leads to more particles in the air. (btw, I have been going to my local health club at least 2-3 times per week since they re-opened. Only a few people wear masks when working out, and we have not been notified of any covid outbreaks)
- People with health or breathing problems are not required to wear masks. This is especially puzzling since people with other health conditions are more at risk to die from covid-19. Even more puzzling is that one of the symptoms of covid-19 is shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. The Governor’s order says people showing a symptom of having the virus are not required to wear a mask that is designed to prevent a person from spreading the virus.
These mask mandates are causing chaos all over the country. Fights and assaults have broken out. People have been maced while eating in the park without masks. For every incident of an out-of-control customer who refuses to wear a mask, there is another story of out-of-control “mask shaming” against people minding their own business. It’s the same story all over the country repeated over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.
This craziness has even cost people their lives.
Even though many national store chains have mandated masks for entry, a number of them like Wal-Mart and Home Depot will no longer ask their employees to enforce these orders in order to protect their safety.
Let’s Get Back to Common Sense
In my last piece I made an appeal to start using common sense when dealing with the virus. This is no different. When I go to the store and I see a sign on the window asking me to wear a mask, I pull the mask out of my pocket and put it on. Once I leave the store I take it off and put it back in my pocket. It’s not the store owners fault the Governor has done this to them. Putting store owners and underpaid clerks into the position of enforcing an unlawful and contradictory order is not the right thing to do. The Governor needs to rescind his order and let businesses make up their own mind. Some stores will still require masks and some won’t. At that point people can make a choice of where they feel comfortable doing business.
That same policy should also apply to individuals. If people feel more comfortable wearing a mask they are free to do so. They may feel this is the best way to protect themselves and their family, or the may have a vulnerable family member at home. There is no judgement in wanting to wear a mask. Just as there should be no judgement for those who choose not to wear a mask. As I have discussed above, there is no “settled science” about the effectiveness of masks, and people should be allowed to go about their business without somebody harassing them for any reason. When out in public we should be treating people with respect whether they are wearing a mask or not.
As I always tell my children, do to others what you would have them do to you.
I think I read that somewhere.