Post #881: Social norms and the school of hard knocks. These are the only things enforcing mask use.

Posted on October 28, 2020

Source for all images in this post:

Today’s post is motivated by my recent refresher course on what, exactly, the COVID-19 mask laws say in the Commonwealth of Virginia (Post #877).

This post is about how that law is (not) enforced.  And about what, if anything, actually enforces mask use.  Both here in Virginia, and in the nation as a whole.

A very mixed message in Virginia

When you put it all together, Virginia’s mask mandate now presents a mixed message on enforcement of legally-required mask use.  It says two things.  The first is from recent legislation.  The second is from the original mask mandate back in May.

You face a $500 fine if you fail to wear a mask when (e.g.) shopping.  This can be enforced by local police.  That seems pretty serious.  And the law spells out that you have to cover both nose and mouth, as specified by the CDC.  So no cheating with the “Republican dangle”.

But at the same time, you can claim that a medical condition prevents you from wearing a mask.  You don’t need any proof of that, and you don’t even have to name the condition.  You can just make it up, and nobody has the legal right to challenge you on it.

That’s some serious cognitive dissonance.  You are subject to stiff penalty, which you can avoid by making up any vague claim about a medical condition.  And nobody can legally challenge that claim.

But this reflects the two stages of development of the mask mandate.

When the Governor first issued the mask order, the enforcement clauses were clearly geared toward establishments, not individuals.  The Governor’s initial executive order stated that enforcement was to be done via local public health departments.  Those folks do things like (e.g.) inspect restaurants to see that they maintain sanitary conditions.  My assumption was that enforcement would be directed against (e.g.) bars that did not maintain social distancing.

I discussed this back in May (Post #702).  As I put it at the time:  “This edict is clearly not aimed at those stray morons among us.  It’s there to prevent those morons from clustering together.”  And so the law had that explicit get-out-of-jail free clause.  All you had to do was say “I’m special” and you, as an individual, were off the hook.  Nobody even had the right to question you about it.

But with more recent legislation, the direction of enforcement has changed.  The law now says that police may enforce it, and that an individual is subject to a fine of up to $500 for failing to wear a mask where required.

No legal enforcement in Virginia.

And that begs the question:  Who (or what) enforces mask use among the general public places these days?  And I think the fairly clear answer, in the legal sense, is nobody.  It’s not enforced by the police and the courts, as far as I can tell.

I did an internet search for any news report of any Virginian who had been fined.  And found none. Could not find a single instance of anyone being fined for not wearing a mask.  Could not find an instance of the police stopping an unmasked person and requiring them to mask up or be fined.

And so, in practice, we don’t really have a legal mask requirement in Virginia.  Not in the sense that we have (e.g.) drunk-driving laws, or laws against assault.  Not in the sense that if you, as an individual, flout the law, you have some material chance of being fined for doing so.

In general, I’ve stumbled across few examples of legal enforcement of mask laws, period.  Today’s story is about a guy who managed to get himself arrested for refusing to wear a mask while voting, in Maryland.  (In Virginia, by contrast, the law explicitly allows voting without a mask, though election officials do their best to discourage that.)  Beyond that, it’s hard even to find an example where people actually ended up paying a fine for failing to wear a mask as required by state or local ordinance.

Does this mean we’re no better than North Dakota?

So, what’s the difference between states that have mask mandates (legal requirements), and those that merely “encourage” mask use, such as (say) North Dakota?  Is there any difference?

After doing  a little armchair research, I’ve come down to just two things that drive mask use:  The school of hard knocks, and peer/social pressure.  And of those, an actual legal mandate may help reinforce peer pressure regarding mask use.

The school of hard knocks.  I’ve gone over this one a few times, but it boils down to people being unwilling to wear masks until COVID-19 hits home.  Most recently, it was Governor Christie (Post #869).  After catching and recovering from COVID-19, he’s gone from mocking mask use to endorsing it.  Earlier, it was a public health official who doubted mask use until it saved his own little county from an outbreak (Post #721).


(Source:  NY Times).  And more generally, the areas that suffered from the initial COVID-19 outbreak seem pretty committed to mask wearing now.  There’s a good reason that the New York and Los Angeles areas show up as dark spots on the NY Times map showing propensity to wear masks when in public. They took their hard knocks early on, and appear to have learned a lesson from it.

But some areas refuse to learn.  The “school of hard knocks” theory played a prominent role in this Washington Post Article.  With the punchline being that most areas learn to mask up when they’ve had an outbreak.  But not North Dakota:

“North Dakota has the highest covid death rate per capita in the world right now,” said Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, referring to deaths in the past week. At the same time, he said, data compiled from Facebook indicates that the state has the lowest mask-wearing rate in the United States, between 45 and 49 percent.

It is unusual to see a place where the virus is having such a dire impact making such limited efforts to stop it, he said.

“Usually we see the opposite. Mostly, when things get bad, people get scared, they start getting careful, mask use goes up, mobility goes down,” Murray said.

And so, the school of hard knocks works in most places.  But not if the people are sufficiently hard-headed.  I guess we’ll see if North Dakotans change their mind, once the hospitals are full.   That appears to be what it has taken, in other states.

Otherwise, enforcement is a matter of social norms.  Around here, mask use compliance is pretty much 100%.  You occasionally see an individual with the “Republican dangle”, wearing a mask, but taking pains to wear it ineffectively (e.g., not covering the nose).  But, by and large, in any public place, 100% of employees and customers are properly masked.

This, despite Republicans being a significant minority in this area.  So it’s not like this is merely a bunch of Democrats following the party line.  In this area, everybody wears a mask in public, regardless of political affiliation.  In effect, social norms have coaxed Republicans into cooperating with the CDC guidance, despite having political leadership that has done more-or-less nothing but disparage mask use.

In that environment, and un-masked person is (and should feel) out-of-place.  And so it’s a self-reinforcing norm.  Even the disinclined can get with the program.

In other areas, if not wearing masks is normal, well, that’s what you’re going to see.  There is no pressure to wear masks.  As in the deeply Republican state of North Dakota, where mask use is still not the norm, despite setting records for the number of daily new COVID-19 cases.

And so it boils down to a form of mob rule.  If the mob doesn’t want to wear masks, it does not appear that there is any effective way to make them do so.  Certainly, so far, there’s been no-to-scant legal enforcement of mask laws, here in Virginia or elsewhere.

And yet, once we get out of the public arena, it’s clear that private organizations that fully internalize the cost of their COVID-19 infections are laser-focused on preventing spread of infection.  When an organization bears (more-or-less) the full cost of causing infections, that organization will rigorously enforce mask use.   This is the point of Post #866.

And so, we have this sad/hilarious situation where people can’t be bothered to wear masks in North Dakota.  Where the Governor won’t issue a mask order.  Where the populace is proud of not wearing masks.  But if they send their kids to the University of North Dakota?  Well, then mask use is unambiguously mandatory.

In Post #878, I half-jokingly said that I think my daughter is safer at school than she would have been at home, regarding coronavirus.  I’m betting that’s literally true in North Dakota.  You have to send your kid off to college to get them in an environment where people have the good sense to wear masks.  And where a mask mandate is enforced.

UND has about 15,000 students, and had about 250 student cases in October, for a rate of about 50/100,000/day, or about half the current community average for North Dakota.