Editorial: Mask up or lock down

People in masks wait in line
People wait in line this month to receive free food, provided by a food bank, and a bag filled with personal protective equipment.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The way President Trump tells it, the COVID-19 pandemic is all but vanquished in the U.S., with a vaccine just around the corner.

Healthcare workers across the country know better. Coronavirus cases are surging to record highs, a fact that’s not attributable to increased testing, according to Adm. Brett Giroir, who leads the federal government’s coronavirus testing response. Hospital beds in hard-hit states such as Utah, Idaho and North Dakota are filling up with COVID-19 patients, and if the surge continues, those hospitals could be overwhelmed.

The pandemic is far from over. We’re facing another round of economically damaging lockdowns unless the virus can be controlled until, and even after, a vaccine is approved for use and there are enough doses available for every American who wants one. At this moment, the best way to do that is by widespread adherence to social distancing and face mask guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But too many people are not following the guidelines, either for ideological reasons, personal discomfort or doubt about masks’ ability to stop the virus — an unfortunate result of the fumble by public health experts who initially discouraged the public from buying up masks desperately needed by healthcare workers.


Since then, however, studies have shown unequivocally that masks are effective at preventing virus transmission if used correctly. Furthermore, there are good data that indicate mask mandates save lives. Recently, researchers in Kansas found significantly lower infection rates in counties that observed mask mandates than those that did not.

Public health officials have attributed much of the spread in this latest wave to social gatherings where people congregate without masks. Los Angeles County, for example, has been unable to move out of the state’s most restrictive tier because the virus continues to be spread through sports-watching parties and other get-togethers.

Given this, it’s clear that it’s high time for uniform mask mandates that apply to every corner of the U.S. And the push must come from the top. President Trump is responsible for stirring up much of the antipathy for masks, and he and his coronavirus task force can fix it by putting politics aside and calling on every American to do their part to slow the virus and wear a mask in public places.

At this point, it can hardly matter to Trump’s reelection chances if he changes course and demands that governors enact strong mask mandates. About 80 million people have already cast ballots. Beyond that, it’s the right thing to do to keep people and the economy as safe as possible. The best way to avoid more lockdowns is to mask up, and the president needs to lead the way.