Post #702: Mandatory mask use. It’s about time

Posted on May 27, 2020

The Governor will require use of masks by individuals over the age of 10, in indoor spaces, starting on 5/29/2020.  There are a handful health-related exceptions, and masks are not required during exercise.

Enforcement will be by the Virginia Department of Health, and will be targeted at establishments that flout this requirement.

The notice does not specifically mention churches, but they seem to be included by reference (“Any indoor space shared by groups of people who may congregate within 6 feet of one another or who are in close proximity to each other for more than 10 minutes“).

Beyond a doubt, the usual right-wing suspects will be complaining bitterly about this.  But from a public health standpoint, in a pandemic, it’s clearly the right thing to do.  Not only does the CDC recommend it (and has since 4/3/2020), but the head of the Chinese CDC called failing to require masks “The big mistake” that the US and Europe made during this pandemic.

If you read this blog, you know that I’ve advocated for mandatory use of masks in enclosed public spaces for a while now.   On 3/26/2020, I shaved my beard so I could wear a tight-fitting mask in public (Post #573).  That was based on the emerging evince of aerosol transmission of COVID-19.   I changed where I shop for groceries, because two stores (Giant and Safeway) couldn’t be bothered to require masks for the employees (let alone their customers).  I now shop at Fresh Market, which has had a mandatory mask policy in place for some time now.

Northern Virginia doesn’t meet anybody’s standards for being “ready to re-open”.  We still routinely see hundreds of new COVID-19 cases per day.  And yet, on Friday, we move on to Phase I of the re-opening some businesses and other institutions.  I would say that, given the circumstances, a mandatory mask order is minimum due diligence.  Should have happened a long time ago.

Given that most people don’t own (and now can’t buy) a high-quality mask, this is going to be no magic bullet.  And given that many already wear masks, and many establishments already require them (e.g., my dentist does), the net impact of a mandatory policy should be small.  That said, this should reduce transmission of disease by forcing the ignorant to get with the program, and wear a mask.

Everything else in the CDC guidance still stands.  So this doesn’t excuse being lax about (e.g.) maintaining distance and hand washing.  This is layered on top of those ongoing precautions.

Finally, my reading of this is that the Governor mostly wants to avoid having one of those “depiction of public stupidity” scenes occur here in Virginia.  You know the ones — big crowds of people, with no masks, and no social distancing.  Party scenes that are just begging to become COVID-19 superspreader events.

We’re always going to have the random willfully butt-headed person who refuses to wear a mask.  Usually they seem to think this has something to do about their person freedom.  It doesn’t, no more than (say) outlawing reckless driving is about restriction of personal freedom.  Or banning outhouses in urban areas.  This is a public health measure.  You can say that all you want, and some people still don’t quite understand what “public” means.

This edict is clearly not aimed at those stray morons among us.  It’s there to prevent those morons from clustering together.   And that is, by itself, sound public health policy.  One non-masked person in a crowd of 100 is an annoyance, but not particularly a threat.  By contrast, a hundred such people gathered together is a situation in which rapid and broad spread of infection may occur.  And so, consistent with generally good government here in the Commonwealth, the Governor’s policy seems more intent on suppressing willfully ignorant institutions, not individuals.  And for all of our sakes, let’s hope it succeeds in doing that.