The United States leads the world in number of COVID-19 cases (~5.2 million, or 25% of the global total), fatalities (165,000, or 22% of the global total) and (to be fair), number of tests administered (~65 million). While many of the properties of COVID-19 and its long-term effect(s) remain a mystery, what’s clear is that a facemask can help curtail the spread of the coronavirus, a prevalent, highly infectious and deadly disease with an average fatality rate ~7x higher than the flu, and over 40x higher for senior citizens or people with certain comorbidities.
At The Quintessential Centrist, we believe all Americans should be temporarily required by law to wear facemasks outdoors where social distancing is not feasible, on mass transit, planes, inside stores, places of worship, and anywhere else in public where the coronavirus can be communicated.
Rules & Regulations
Rules and regulations are appropriate when they provide an asymmetric benefit to a majority of citizens and the (in)convenience factor to comply with those regulations is de minimis. Consider the requirement that a driver’s license is needed to operate a motor vehicle: yes, it can be annoying to trek to the local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or renew a license online, but the overwhelming majority of people accept the condition of a license to operate a one ton (or more) piece of machinery, driven on public roads, that could critically injure, or kill somebody.
At TQC, generally we put our faith in the invisible hand – the market - and the “p” word, “price,” to channel scarce resources to where they can be utilized most efficiently and effectively. We believe in a smallish government and that individuals should do as they please so long as they abide by the law and do not impose their will on anybody by means of coercion or fear of reprisal. However, in extraordinary circumstances, we think there is a place for lawmakers to enact and enforce sensible rules and regulations to protect public health so long as they are not overly onerous to abide by, nor stifle commerce. The coronavirus global pandemic qualifies as such. (Some laws and most licensing requirements do in fact create unnecessary friction, needlessly annoy citizens, and raise the costs of conducting business. We dedicated an entire post to this subject. It can be read here.)
Unmasking The Data
During the coronavirus pandemic, the government has designated workers as “essential” and “non-essential.” The stark reality is that when the rent is due and the fridge is empty, every worker is essential. Businesses should be able to operate (with safeguards in place), schools should re-open (not least because those parents earning low wages are hard pressed to afford daycare) and people should temporarily be required to wear masks in public when social distancing is impossible until the coronavirus abates and/or a vaccine is produced. Yes, masks can be annoying, uncomfortable and can make the wearer perspire in the heat. But it is better to perspire, than for a fellow citizen to expire.
Temporary government mandated legislation is necessary simply because ~33% of Americans usually do not wear a mask in public; ~15% never do. And seemingly like just about everything else in this country, compliance has become an increasingly partisan issue. Mask usage is most common in the Northeast and parts of New England (which lean Democrat) and least common in the Southeast and Great Plains (which lean Republican). To be equitable, we must consider population density. In heavily populated areas such as New York City and Boston, social distancing can be all but impossible, and hence, the need to wear a mask imperative. In rural or sparsely populated areas that encompass large sections of the Southeast and Plains, it is more feasible to socially distance in public. However, even in stores where no matter where they are located it is often hard to maintain distance between shoppers, ~75% of Democrats polled say they wear masks vs just over half of Republicans.
One reason that some people continue to endanger the welfare of their fellow citizens and refuse to wear a mask is because high ranking officials in the U.S. government, including president Donald Trump and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, initially took the position against people wearing masks in public (Trump is still non-committal). In late February, Doctor Adams Tweeted, “seriously people-STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” On April 3rd (thank goodness it was not on April 1st) Adams pivoted and said, “I want people to understand that the CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO), my office, and most public health and health organizations and professionals originally recommended against the general public wearing masks…In light of (new) evidence, CDC recommends and the [COVID-19] task force recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain. These include places like grocery stores and pharmacies. We especially recommend this in areas of significant community-based transmission. It is critical…”
Initially Dr. Adams was simply echoing the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and trying to stave off panic buying of N95 masks – people were not versed to distinguish between those, and regular cotton masks - in a time of critical shortage of PPE needed for healthcare workers. That said, the argument “why trust the government now?” does not ring completely hollow.
The Libertarian Argument
At TQC, we often concur with libertarians on a myriad of issues. But, the argument that being forced to wear a mask violates an individual’s constitutional rights is categorically incorrect, a logical fallacy, and not to mention, extremely selfish. The U.S. Constitution does indeed confer "police powers” expressly for times of a national emergency, including a public health crisis.
In U.S. constitutional law, police power is “the permissible scope of federal or state legislation so far as it may affect the rights of an individual when those rights conflict with the promotion and maintenance of the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the public…more specifically, public health police allows the states to pass and enforce isolation and quarantine, health, and inspection laws to interrupt or prevent the spread of disease. Historically, the exercise of public health police power was enforced with strong support of the courts and restraint of police power occurred only when there was open disregard for individual rights." Indeed, a temporary government mandate to wear a mask in public is perfectly within the laws set forth in the Constitution
If an individual refuses to wear a mask in public, they should stay home and isolate from society - not the other way around. Another common complaint among civil libertarians is that businesses are being forced to shut down. As we argued above, we think business should be able to operate, but with certain appropriate mandated safeguards. That said, if somebody is going to complain that a business is being forced to shut down, would it not make logical sense to comply with simple orders that would facilitate a way for those same businesses to remain open?
Certain conservative pundits have espoused conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 and whether masks are effective. This begs the question: if masks do not help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases for that matter, then why do doctors and nurses wear them on every shift?
It upsets us when we hear young and/or low risk people say something analogous to “I’m young and healthy, why should I wear a mask in public?” We would advise these individuals to take a course in astronomy, because statements like those are truly out of this world. Unbeknownst to many of the folks making this argument, the Earth revolves around the sun, not themselves.
N95 VS KN95
People are sometimes confused by two similar mask designations, “N95”and “KN95.” Quite simply, “N95” is the U.S. standard for masks that filter out 95% of very small particles. “KN95” is the Chinese standard for the same thing. Unfortunately, some Chinese made “KN95” masks have been found to be of dubious quality, falling well short of the “KN95” standard. Still, a substandard mask or even a bandanna or t-shirt is typically better than nothing.
Masks are cheap, (now) plentiful, and most importantly, have been proven to help control the spread of the coronavirus. We concede, unless it is Halloween or at an S&M dungeon, most people do not enjoy donning masks. But given our current predicament, we think a temporary mandated order requiring face coverings in public is a sensible piece of legislation that is not overly burdensome to comply with.