- Catherine Devlin
In Some States, No Mask Doesn’t Mean No Service
Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Just over a year ago, the American public viewed face masks as pieces of medical equipment, but these infection preventing garments have since come to be a staple in most Americans’ wardrobes. On April 10, 2020, New Jersey became the first state to implement a statewide mask order, a precedent that was subsequently followed by 39 other states. Recently, however, the trend has begun to shift from states adding mask mandates to removing them. Supporters of removing the mandate, primarily from the Republican Party, argue that such laws are no longer medically necessary and that they are harming the economy. Critics, however, argue that these mandates are a public health necessity, especially as the COVID-19 virus continues to mutate.
Mississippi was among the first states to begin scaling back mask laws. On September 30, 2020, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves allowed the public mask order passed on August 5 to expire, but still required masks in schools and close-contact businesses. On March 3, 2021, Reeves lifted the regional mask order completely. Other states have similarly lessened precautions, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifting the state mandate effective March 10, 2021 and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announcing that the mandate in that state will be lifted by April 9. Some states have gone beyond simply removing mask mandates and have extended the loosening of rules to multiple COVID-19 precautions. For instance, on March 25 Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced that bars and clubs would be able to reopen without restrictions and lifted restrictions against gatherings of 50 or more people. Similarly, Texas has reopened 100%, with no more business restrictions.
Proponents of reopening point primarily to the economy as validation for removing precautions. Governor Reeves, for instance, defended lifting the state’s mask mandate by saying, “we have to get our economy rolling.” Arizona Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers (R-AZ) agreed, saying that removing restrictions was “the right and responsible decision.” Despite such reasoning for lifting mandates, lifting precautions may not stimulate business. In fact, a study from the University of Utah statewide found that mask mandates actually stimulated economic growth. At the county level, however, such mandates depressed the economy. The researchers reasoned that households responded to counties with decreased spending because they worried that the local mandate meant that cases had increased. However, state mandates did not lead to such assumptions, but instead made consumers feel safer when in public, thus stimulating spending. This study, therefore, contradicts state-level justification of removing mask mandates for economic reasons.
Others encourage a lifting of mask mandates based on the idea that COVID-19 protocols are infringing on Americans’ rights. In a recent panel on COVID-19 in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), repeatedly asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID Director and Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, to name an exact time when COVID-19 mandates could be lifted, saying that American businesses would suffer and rights would not be fully recognized as long as they remained in place. Jordan argued that the lifting of mandates would allow Americans “to get their liberties and freedoms back,” claiming that guidelines limiting actions such as assembling and petitioning the government infringed on First Amendment rights. Dr. Fauci reminded Jordan of the pandemic’s high death toll and noted that CDC protocols do now allow some assembling, such as in private homes.
Some also justify lifting mask mandates by the notion that such laws are no longer medically necessary. For instance, Abbott said of Texas’ decreased precautions, “with the medical advancements of vaccines and antibody therapeutic drugs, Texas now has the tools to protect Texans from the virus.” While 72% Americans are still waiting to be fully vaccinated, this statement reflects the idea that since vaccines have been produced, earlier precautions such as masks are no longer necessary. Others justify the removal of mask mandates by arguing that such mandates weren’t fully followed even when in place. For instance, Ducey claimed that mask mandates were rarely enforced at the local level. The idea, then, is that it will not do any harm to remove a law that is not being enforced in the first place.
Despite such arguments in favor of removing mask mandates, public health officials continue to warn against a scaling back of precautions. In mid-February, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Dr. Rochelle Walensky, told reporters at “Meet the Press” that it was “absolutely” too soon to remove mask mandates. The CDC website continues to urge the wearing of masks “in public settings, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people.” While the CDC has lessened some mask restrictions for fully vaccinated individuals, including allowing them to visit other fully vaccinated people indoors without masks, the Center continues to stress the importance of wearing a mask when in public. One of the reasons for this caution is that, while numbers are decreasing, COVID-19 remains active. Walkensky explained the difference between decreasing and disappearing when she said, “it’s encouraging to see these trends coming down but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place.” Similarly, in Arizona, hospital officials made a statement via the Health System Alliance of Arizona which warned that “a downward trend is not synonymous with the elimination of the virus.”
One major concern with the elimination of masks is the potential for the virus to mutate as it has more hosts with which to establish variation. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a Democrat, articulated this worry when she responded to the news of Arizona lessening restrictions by saying that such action “directly contradicts the best scientists in the field” since “we know new variants are circulating.” A new strain of the virus, one that is 50-70% more contagious, has been found across the United States, including in Wyoming, a state that has lifted its mask mandate. Decreased precautions may allow such strains to continue to spread and mutate.
The word “unprecedented” has been greatly overused this year, but for good reason. Just as the nation struggled to figure out how to react to the beginning of the pandemic, the foreseeable end will bring great challenges as well. However, deciding the pandemic is over does not make it true. Until vaccinations are more widespread, it makes sense to follow public health guidelines and keep your mask on.