By Justin Fox / Bloomberg Opinion
Face masks are at risk of becoming a victim of America’s culture wars, with a few conservative activists and commentators linking their use to cowardice, civil-rights violations and that worst of scourges, “the safetyism ideology that has jumped from the university to the public sphere.”
I do not wish to exaggerate the strength of this anti-mask movement, which seems to consist mainly of a few cranks in search of clicks (as well as a few unbalanced people with guns), but there does seem to be broader incidence of mask-apathy and mask-embarrassment that such rhetoric risks hardening into outright opposition.
This makes me sad, not just because there’s a reasonable chance that widespread mask-wearing could save lots of lives by slowing the spread of Covid-19, but because courageous, anti-authoritarian freedom-lovers ought by all rights to be big mask fans.
The rise of face masks as a response to the pandemic has been a largely grass-roots phenomenon, conceived in opposition to the recommendations of health authorities such as the U.S. surgeon general and the World Health Organization; which still advises against their widespread use. Yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came around to endorsing masks in April, and some states have recently begun requiring them in stores and other public indoor spaces.
I get that such decrees rub some people the wrong way, and that mask-nannying by the news media does, too. But mask requirements are an awful lot less freedom-restricting than orders to stay at home or keep all “nonessential” businesses shuttered, and letting one’s views be defined by opposition to anything the mainstream media says is not free thought. Wearing masks appears to be the simplest way to get much of normal life (and normal economic activity) back while we’re still figuring out how exactly to control and maybe defeat Covid-19 by less-primitive means. What’s not to like about that?
The evidence that masks can play this role is, I’ll admit, more suggestive than conclusive. But there does seem to be more of it piling up every day. Public health officials in the West had discouraged widespread mask-wearing because of fears that (1) supplies for health-care workers would run out and (2) wearers might assume the masks made them invulnerable, leading them to take unwise risks. Early media coverage generally parroted this anti-mask line. But a variety of people not in positions of authority and not in the media began pointing out on places like Reddit and Twitter that the success of several mask-happy East Asian countries in combating the coronavirus, as well as a number of earlier studies focused on other respiratory illnesses such as influenza, seemed to indicate that while masks are no foolproof defense against Covid-19, they can slow its spread. A more recent study has found that countries where mask-wearing is widespread have so far experienced much-slower Covid-19 case growth than those where it is not.
I’m referring here not to the N95 respirators that can filter out most (if not all) viruses but can be uncomfortable to wear and hard to find, but to simple procedural or surgical masks, as well as homemade cloth masks and even bandannas. A virus particle can definitely get through such masks under the right (wrong) circumstances, but Covid-19 seems to be transmitted mainly by infected people expelling virus-containing droplets while coughing, eating, talking or singing, and others breathing in those droplets. Any cover over the mouth and nose, even a quite imperfect and primitive one, will impede such transmission.
The prevailing belief is that masks are more effective at keeping infected wearers from spreading their germs than at protecting non-infected wearers (which kind of negates the argument that mask wearing is cowardly), but their most important role is as barriers placed in the path of the virus that likely reduce its reproduction number and thus its spread. Because Covid-19 can become contagious before a person develops any symptoms, and it’s still not entirely clear how long people who get the disease remain contagious, or whether it can recur, the most logical approach is for everybody to wear them.
In March and April, this would have been hard to do in the U.S. because face masks were in short supply. I even bought a sewing machine in late March and taught myself how to use it so I could make a few masks out of old dress shirts for me and my family. This is no longer necessary. Every major professional sports franchise in the U.S. is now willing to sell you a team-logo cloth mask. Etsy is overflowing with cloth masks, and lots of clothing companies that buy ads in my Instagram feed are selling them as well. President Trump’s re-election campaign will apparently have them on offer soon. You can also get disposable nonwoven three-ply surgical-style masks, which are generally more effective than the cloth ones if less fun, online and in some stores again.
Where I live in New York City pretty much all of us now wear some kind of face coverings outside of our apartments, even in situations where they serve no real purpose, such as walking the dog in nearly empty Riverside Park at 7 a.m. on a Sunday. In much of the rest of the country, from what I hear, masks are still rare even in the grocery store. I’d chalk up some of that difference to peer pressure, some to rational risk assessment: Covid-19 was running rampant in New York until recently, with more than 20 percent of the population likely infected already. In most of the rest of the U.S., that share appears to be well below 5 percent.
Still, as state restrictions ease and people start venturing out again, masks represent a cheap, easy means of keeping that infection rate from rising as much as it otherwise might. They’re a way to make new flare-ups of the disease less likely, and renewed lockdowns unnecessary. They’re the ultimate pro-freedom, pro-life fashion accessory.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”