Post #877: COVID trends to 10/23/2020, and some observations.

Posted on October 23, 2020

Source data are from Johns Hopkins University, as archived by the NY Times on Github.  Note that I’ve had to expand the vertical scale yet again, since the last time I published this graph.

There’s really not much to say about trends in Virginia (thick black line).  Things have held fairly steady here, with minor ups and downs, for the past few months.

But as you can see from the general shape of this tangle of lines, a lot of states have shown a modest upward trend since the first of October or so.  Plausibly, that commonality is a result of the seasonality of coronavirus in temperature climates.  (But there’s no proof of that.)

A few observations and recaps.

Locally, mask use is universal; cheap masks are no longer being used; social reinforcement works.

In my area of Fairfax County, VA, I would say that compliance with mask use is 100%.  My wife and I discussed this last night, and over the past couple of weeks, neither of us has seen anyone — not even once — failing to wear a mask where one was called for under the Governor’s emergency orders.  If anything, we’ve seen people wearing masks when they aren’t really required (e.g., outdoors, with nobody nearby).

My wife further noted the disappearance of the cheap disposable blue “surgical” mask.  And upon reflection, I agree.  I rarely see one worn, and now rarely see one as litter. And so, we’ve reached the point where, given that masks are the norm, you might as well wear a good one, right?

It reminds me of what friend of mine used to say about his top-of-the-line Bell full-face motorcycle helmet.  This guy was as cheap as cheap gets, and yet, his helmet probably cost more than his motorcycle did.  So I asked him why, and he said “If you have a $10 head, then buy a $10 helmet”.  To which I can now add, “and if you have $1 lungs, wear a $1 mask.”

My conclusion is that here in NoVA, we’ve made the full transition from having a few early adopters wear masks, to having almost all wear masks but some doing so grudgingly, to masks being normal, required and functional part of attire when in enclosed public spaces.  Like shoes, say, or a shirt.  You want to go in a store, you wear a mask.

I think this shows how well social reinforcement works.  Meaning, if most people are reasonable, eventually you get nearly-full compliance.  But if you’re stuck in a situation like South Dakota, where the Governor constantly reinforces the notion that masks don’t work, and a lot of people refuse to wear them, then good luck getting 100% mask use.  It’s never going to happen.  You’ll end up stuck where NoVA was months ago — some use them, some don’t, use is grudging, and non-use is socially acceptable.

Just what exactly are the mask rules in Virginia, anyway?

These days, I find myself wearing a mask in some situations because it’s the socially acceptable thing to do, not because it’s required by law.  This is mostly outdoors, when I’m walking around town.  Even if a mask is not legally required, if mask use in a given situation is the norm around here, I don’t want to offend people by not wearing one.

But I’m a little hazy on what, exactly, the Governor’s order calls for.  Among other things, I am sure that the CDC guidelines changed materially after the Governor issued that mask order.  So it’s not clear that the Governor’s mask order fully incorporates the idea of guarding against aerosol (airborne) spread, at least when indoors.

So let me look up what the law actually says, and condense it here, as best I can.  And here, it’s best to look directly at the Governor’s executive orders, not interpretations of that. Mask use was ordered by the Governor to begin on 5/29/2020, via Executive Order #63 (.pdf).

That order does not appear to have been modified in any way since that time, except for the enforcement provisions.  Those were recently modified by law.  Enforcement was via public health officials.  Now enforcement can be done by law officers, and you can now get a $500 civil fine for refusing to wear a mask when it is required by law.

For adults  (other than when acting as employees — see below):

  • Indoors:  You must wear a mask in more-or-less every public indoor space, or when entering or exiting such a place, including public transit.
  • Outdoors:  There is no Virginia mask requirement, at all, for any outdoor activity.

Exceptions:  You don’t need to wear/may temporarily remove a mask: 

  • when voting (masks are only required in government buildings ” … when accessed for the purpose of securing public services, …”)
  • if you need to remove the mask to participate in a religious ritual (e.g., communion).
  • when eating or drinking
  • when exercising
  • if you have trouble breathing (or are unconscious etc.)
  • if you need to communicate with a hearing-impaired person who needs to see your mouth in order to understand you.
  • if you need to remove the mask to get medical or similar care.
  • if you have a health condition that prohibits mask use.

On voting, you can read a nice writeup hereIn addition, my reading of the law is that masks are not required in Virginia for any essentially political purpose that occurs in government buildings.  So it’s not just voting.  E.g., if there is an in-person meeting of some political body, and it is required to be a meeting open to the public, then you may, in Virginia, access that building for that purpose without wearing a mask.  (But if you’re just paying your water bill, then, yeah, you need to wear a mask.)

On that last one — having a health condition — it’s strictly an honor system.  If someone claims that exemption (in Virginia), no one can make them prove it.  A person claiming such an exemption does not even have to name the condition.  All that is required is that an individual claim to have a condition that prevents mask use.

That’s obviously ripe for abuse, and I think the evident pattern of abuse is interesting.

Based on my reading of newspaper reports, the prevalence of medical conditions that prevent mask use is vastly higher in the low-mask/mask-resistant areas.  Those areas seem to have a lot of cranky old people who are willing to claim this exemption.  Loudly.  And I’m pretty sure that gets back to the idea of social enforcement above.  In areas where everybody is complying with the mandate, for the benefit of the health of the public, you’d look like a total ass by claiming (loudly, and not at all out-of-breath) that you were somehow special, and did not need to comply.  But if all your peers think that flouting public health guidelines is some sort of brave political statement, then you’re probably earning points with your in-group by making up and loudly proclaiming the reason you can’t wear any sort of face covering.

Purely from a medical standpoint, the number of conditions for which a) you would be walking and talking and that b) prevent use of any face covering whatsoever, is somewhere between none and very close to none.  (Can you name even one common condition for which an ambulatory person would be medically unable to wear a loose-fitting bandana?)

For kids age 10 and older:

The rules are the same for adults, except that mask use is not required in day care or school settings.

“State or local government buildings when accessed for the purpose of securing public services, with the exception of students in daycare centers or participating in-person classes in K-12 education or institutions of higher education.

For kids 9 and younger, there are no rules.  Those older than two are encouraged to wear a mask in the same situations that adults are required to wear masks.

For employees:

Executive Order #63 only addressed employees in essential businesses, such as grocery, drug, liquor, and similar stores, various repair services, and so on.

  • Employees of essential businesses must wear masks when in any public-facing position.

Executive Order #63 specifically left the regulation of other employment situations to the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry.  There is an actual regulation, but it’s 40-odd pages, and I’m not going to plow through all that.

Based on what I can glean from this source and this source:

  • Employees of all businesses must wear masks when in any public-facing position.
  • Employees must wear masks in any situation where social distancing cannot be maintained for more than 10 minutes.

The upshot of the last one is, I think, that employees have to be masked in any business where they work in close proximity, such as in a meat packing plant.

A final note on social distancing.  In addition to mask use, I note that the Phase III guidelines for Virginia modified the distance requirements for social distancing.  It’s not a flat six feet any more. Instead:

“Maintain at least ten feet of distance for establishments where exercise activities, singing, or cheering is performed, and at least six feet of distance for all other settings.”