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Embrace The Mask To Reopen The Country

To return to normal, we must beat the virus. To beat the virus, we must keep it from spreading.

There seems to be a strange disconnect with those who want to reopen the country but who also oppose the use of face masks. The use of masks as a mitigation tool could help to speed the return to normalcy but proponents of reopening the country often simultaneously oppose the use of masks, sometimes violently.

There have been numerous reports of threats of boycotts and altercations over mask requirements in some private businesses. Several fights have erupted after store employees asked customers to wear masks and there has been stranger behavior as well. A New Jersey man was arrested after coughing and spitting on employees who asked him to put on a mask while a Michigan man wiped his nose on a Dollar Tree employee before making his escape.

Interestingly, many of those want to rapidly reopen the country are extremely resistant to other tools that would allow us to do so as well. In addition to masks, many mock social distancing and cite conspiracy theories about the as-yet-undeveloped vaccine.

There are a limited number of explanations for this cognitive dissonance. In the case of masks, one of the most likely of these is the mixed messaging from health authorities. Initially, the CDC and other agencies did not recommend masks for healthy individuals. That recommendation has been changed, but videos of Dr. Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams saying that improperly worn masks “actually increase your risk” of becoming infected are still being passed around. Further, the World Health Organization still says, “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19.”

Why the recommendation was changed is a legitimate question. The CDC explained last month that the change was made after studies determined that people infected with COVID-19 can transmit the virus even if they are not showing symptoms. Asymptomatic carriers of the disease can infect others by “speaking, coughing, or sneezing” in close proximity.

Some authorities also cited the false sense of security provided by masks as a reason not to wear them. The reasoning here is mask-wearers might feel invulnerable and forgo social distancing and handwashing.

There is also some evidence that masks were not initially recommended because they were already in short supply and the government wanted available masks to go to healthcare workers who needed them more than the general public. When I went to look for masks for my family in late February, every store in town was sold out and none have restocked since. These days, most masks are going to hospitals and healthcare workers rather than retail stores.

Opponents of masks point out studies that question the usefulness of masks in stopping the spread of Coronavirus, but that isn’t the full story. A frequently-cited South Korean study found that neither cloth nor surgical masks prevented the passage of viruses, but the researchers still noted that there were fewer particles on the outside of the mask of infected individuals than the inside. Further, the study had only four participants and used very crude measures.

Other studies have reached more encouraging conclusions. A new study in Nature found that surgical masks “significantly reduced detection… coronavirus RNA in aerosols, with a trend toward reduced detection of coronavirus RNA in respiratory droplets.”

“Our results indicate that surgical face masks could prevent transmission of human coronaviruses and influenza viruses from symptomatic individuals,” the researchers said.

Non-surgical masks are more questionable, but as May Chu, a clinical professor in epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, told LiveScience, “Any kind of impediment is better than nothing.”

There seem to be a variety of reasons why people reject masks. One explanation is simply that no mask is available. Some opponents also cite discomfort and difficulty breathing. I can sympathize with those who complain that masks cause their glasses to fog up.

In other cases, opposition to masks is a form of virtue signaling. Scorning masks as virtue signaling can take several forms. Some ridicule mask-wearers as “cowards” or those who give up living to stay alive.” Some say that they trust God to protect them rather than a simple medical device. Still others believe that mask requirements are a form of tyranny and refuse them as a demonstration of liberty and independence. In some cases, rejecting masks is a default rejection of any government recommendation. An additional category is comprised of those who don’t believe the pandemic is real or who think concerns are overblown.

In reality, none of these objections stand up to scrutiny. Exercising caution against a deadly infectious disease is not a sign of cowardice but of common sense. Likewise, God has given us tools to protect ourselves and others from this disease and availing ourselves of these gifts is no more abandoning our faith in God than is going to the grocery store rather than waiting for food to manifest upon our doorstep. Cloth masks that are commonly available are better than no protection and mask usage for a few minutes while in a store should be possible for almost anyone.

Governments can legally and constitutionally mandate mask usage through public health codes that also mandate wearing shirts and shoes in restaurants, which also are not examples of tyranny except in a #FirstWorldProblems sense of the word. Many cities mandated mask usage, backed up by fines, during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and there is a rich body of case law backing up the authority of local governments to use both quarantines and other measures to ensure public health. The Supreme Court has even ruled in favor of mandatory vaccinations.

Those who don’t care about their own health should consider wearing masks to protect their higher risks friends and relatives. As the CDC pointed out, carriers of COVID-19 can infect others long before they show symptoms. Concern for the welfare of others is a Christian and pro-life attitude.

If nothing else, Americans should wear masks in public places because doing so will help to return the country to normal. To return to normal, we must beat the virus. To beat the virus, we must keep it from spreading. To keep it from spreading, we must use tools such as masks and social distancing. Masks are not perfect, but they are a valuable part of the arsenal that will eventually defeat COVID-19.

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