It’s Time to Require Masks

It’s Time to Require Masks
(Nik Anderson / Flickr)

The coronavirus is raging across America like a wildfire, and we need a more consistent approach to mask-wearing to stand a chance at putting the fire out.

More than three months ago, the Centers for Disease Control recommended that people wear masks. At the time, President Trump said, “I just don’t want to wear one myself, it’s a recommendation.” And just a few weeks ago, he held a rally in an indoor arena in Tulsa, Okla., where neither he, nor the vast majority of attendees, wore masks. That rally is now being recognized as the likely cause of record-high COVID-19 infections in that state.

On fourth of July weekend, the president held public events for unmasked thousands in South Dakota and Washington, D.C.

The President’s disdain for masks has become so noticeable, that when he wore one in public for the first time this weekend while visiting a military hospital, it made national headlines. 


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The mixed messaging on masks from the president is almost certainly leading to fewer Americans wearing masks than otherwise would. Most Americans say they believe masks should be worn in public, but in a recent Gallup poll, about a quarter of adults reported that they “sometimes,” “rarely” or “never,” wear a mask in public.

A partisan divide has emerged—with only 66 percent of Republicans reporting wearing a mask in the past week, as compared with 98 percent of Democrats. White people are less likely than people of color to wear masks, and men are less likely than women to wear masks

Unfortunately, lazy mask use is not going to cut it. Masks become far less effective when they aren’t used universally. One study found that if 80 percent of the public wore masks, they would have a significant impact on transmission of coronavirus. But if only 50 percent wore masks, they would have minimal impact. 

Our laissez-faire approach to masks endangers us all, but leaves women and people of color especially vulnerable. Women, particularly women of color, are the backbone of our essential workforce, putting their lives at risk as nursing home workers, child care workers, and fast food and retail workers ensure the rest of us stay healthy and fed.

More often than not, they do this work for little pay and fewer benefits. The least—the very least—we could all do for them is wear a mask. 

It’s Time to Require Masks
Yard sign April 20, 2020 in Grand Rapids, Mich. (G Witteveen / Flickr)

Since some will not wear a mask on their own, we owe it to our essential workers—and everyone else—to require it. The CDC should mandate masks, and the Trump administration should exercise its power under the Defense Production Act to produce and supply enough masks for every household in America. 

In the absence of a national mandate on mask-wearing, store clerks are too often being forced to act as bouncers for those customers who enter their stores without masks. This is a burden they shouldn’t have to bear. 

It’s easy to see where the public health guidance on masks went wrong. The misinformation from the president about mask-wearing has sown the seeds of nationwide confusion and division—as he did last weekend in a speech claiming that 99 percent of coronavirus cases are harmless

This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about life and death. Essential workers in grocery stores, coffee shops and gas stations across America are sitting ducks, ready to be taken out by the next unmasked customer who enters their store with the coronavirus in tow. The newspapers are already teeming with accounts of grocery store workers who’ve gotten sick and died from contracting coronavirus at work. And customers are also at risk. 

Some may believe we are free to put our lives in danger if we want to. After all, President Trump does it every day—appearing on camera in crowded rooms unmasked and setting an example of how it is our individual right to take stupid risks that may cost us our lives. Well, maybe.

But we don’t have the right to endanger others. That’s why people are required to get drivers’ licenses before they get on the road. It’s why most states don’t allow people to text and drive. It’s why you can’t smoke cigarettes inside in a restaurant. And it’s why we should require people to wear a mask. 

The evidence overwhelmingly shows that people who don’t wear masks put others’ lives at risk. Researchers in Hong Kong found that masks can cut down coronavirus transmission by up to 75 percent. Another new study predicts that if 95 percent of the public wore masks, this could cut coronavirus-related deaths in the United States over the next three months by nearly 33,000. That’s 33,000 families and communities who do not have to mourn one more life ended too soon. 

Just recently, a new analysis by the Philadelphia Inquirer showed that the 16 states that don’t require masks in public experienced an 84 percent increase in cases in just two weeks. In contrast, in the 11 states that do require masks, cases fell by 25 percent. 

In the midst of record high case numbers—far surpassing any other country—and glaring racial disparities in COVID-19 deaths, it’s time to rethink our carelessness about masks. 

This is not about infringing on our freedom. It is about not killing our neighbors. The time has come for a national mask mandate. Both Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden have called for a federal requirement that people wear masks. 

The CDC mission statement says that it “saves lives and protects people from health threats.” It’s past time for CDC Director Robert Redfield to work up the nerve to deliver on his mission by requiring everyone to, in the words of Senator Marco Rubio, “Just wear a damn mask.”


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About

Liz Watson is the executive director of the Progressive Caucus Action Fund.