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Editorial: We need a national face mask mandate

Masks for sale in Venice.
Masks for sale in Venice.
(Los Angeles Times)

When it comes to face masks in the time of coronavirus, the United States is a confusing mess of patchwork policies.

Some states, counties and cities require people to wear face coverings in certain public places; others do not. Some elected officials urge people to wear them to help keep the infection from spreading; others mock people who do. There isn’t even a universal policy for masks on airplanes, despite the fact that it’s impossible to avoid close contact with people on a packed flight.

The lack of a consistent message at all levels of government about the efficacy of a tool that has been used for centuries to limit the spread of disease has evidently led far too many people to conclude that face coverings can’t be that important. Government skeptics and unhinged people have happily filled the public education vacuum with misinformation about masks, suggesting that those recommending them have sinister motives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started recommending face coverings in stores and public places in April, but almost quietly. A month earlier, health officials were actively discouraging masks among people who weren’t sick, to leave more for the frontline healthcare workers who didn’t have enough equipment to keep themselves safe. (They still don’t, by the way.) After the CDC reversed course, President Trump quickly made it clear that he would not turn the agency’s recommendation into an order. “With the masks, it is going to be really a voluntary thing,” he said.

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And so it has been, to the nation’s detriment, as COVID-19 has roared back to life. Without any sort of national pandemic response policy, the U.S. continues to lead the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths, at nearly 3 million and more than 130,000, respectively. It’s going to get worse if the nation doesn’t get better at stopping the spread.

The first step is for the president and Congress to unite behind a clearly articulated national policy on the use of face masks — and not some namby-pamby, maybe-you-should message. The science on this is not up for debate. There’s no question that if everyone wore a covering over their mouth and nose while out in public, it would reduce coronavirus transmission. (Though it wouldn’t eliminate it; face coverings aren’t foolproof protection from infection, as one Democratic state lawmaker found out. Assemblywoman Autumn Burke of Marina Del Rey announced Monday that she’d tested positive for COVID-19 in a “mask-to-mask” transmission at the state Capitol.)

It may also save lives. New pandemic modeling from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington predicts that if 95% of people complied with face mask recommendations, more than 45,000 lives could be saved by November.

The right federal policy would be to have all states, even those where COVID-19 cases are comparatively infrequent at the moment, adopt face-covering requirements immediately. How the states enforce the mandates should be left to them, but the national policy should make it clear that the federal government will use its budgetary authority to twist the arms of recalcitrant governors or state legislators.

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It’s the least they can do at the moment. Most countries have a national policy regarding use of face coverings in public. And in many of those that don’t, there is such a deeply ingrained culture of mask-wearing that voluntary compliance is high. As an Oxford researcher pointed out in a new review of studies of past pandemics, conflicting policy advice generates confusion and lack of compliance.

A mask mandate is also a way to avoid more economic damage. Goldman Sachs economists looked at the issue solely from a financial perspective and concluded: “A national face mask mandate could potentially substitute for renewed lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP.”

That’s the kind of math you’d think would move a president seeking reelection during a recession.

The calls for a national policy on face coverings have gotten louder as the pandemic has gotten worse. The lack of consistent messaging has alarmed healthcare professionals to the point that the American Medical Assn., the American Nurses Assn. and the American Hospital Assn. issued a joint statement this week urging everyone to wear a face mask in public. The Retail Industry Leaders Assn., which represents large retailers such as Best Buy and Target, wrote a letter to the National Governors Assn. this week asking them to take universal action so that their stores could stop being battlegrounds over the use of face masks.

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Absent a vaccine, our best defense is keeping away from other people and using a face covering. It’s astonishing that this simple strategy is so controversial that we need a mandate. And it’s tragic that we don’t already have one.


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