Mask mandates in perspective: Facing the facts on respirators

It was two years ago, on April 2, 2020, that we championed the wearing of face coverings to frustrate the spread of what was then called the novel coronavirus. With the pandemic ongoing though diminished, we remain supporters of masking indoors, especially in certain settings, but we’ve learned a few things, particularly about the utility of statewide or citywide mandates.

Studies affirm that the more people who wear high-quality masks in settings where air doesn’t travel especially well, the harder it is for SARS-CoV2 to jump from person to person. If a policy could magically ensure that everyone wore high-quality masks at all times, it might well prove to be very effective in frustrating viral spread. (Philosophically, we also don’t consider it a major infringement on freedom to ask people to mask when around others; when a pandemic is raging, it’s a relatively minor ask, especially to protect the unidentifiable immunocompromised among us.)


Trouble is, regulations requiring people to wear masks are often riddled with holes — holes that are inevitable in a free society. Mandates don’t specify which type of covering, and cloth masks are much less effective than surgical masks, which are much less effective than N95 or other respirators. On airplanes, passengers remove their face coverings to sip ginger ale and munch on pretzels. In classrooms, children — who can’t be expected to wear their masks that well in the first place — eat lunch. A city with an indoor mask mandate that also allows people to gather in restaurants and bars should ask itself what it is accomplishing at the macro level.

All of this means that while high-quality masks work, when factoring in the vagaries of human behavior, mask mandates often prove to be of limited utility.

The experience of neighboring countries, states, counties or school systems with and without such mandates over the course of the pandemic suggests that rigid rules on face-coverings did little to bend curves. That’s in stark contrast to vaccinations, which massively reduce hospitalizations and deaths.

Intuitively, a mask mandate on New York’s largest-in-the-nation public transit system still makes good sense to us.

On subways and buses, strangers are packed in close quarters without very good ventilation for relatively long stretches, and they’re not permitted to be feasting. Nix that mandate while infection rates are relatively high, and it’s likely many passengers would opt for private vehicles or stay home rather than increase the risk of getting sick.

But every advocate of mask mandates should have a bit more humility today than they did at the start of this long journey through the wilds of public health.

— New York Daily News

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