There’s wisdom in this answer, especially the bit near the end where he says that getting hung up on the issue of mandatory masks would impede his ability to communicate with Ohioans. DeWine’s an old pro and knows a dopey culture-war sideshow in the making when he sees one. If he’d tried to set a rule about mask-wearing, there’d be people carrying Gadsden flags asserting their natural rights to go maskless and people on the other side screaming at them that they’re mass murderers. Best not to touch the issue and keep the public focused on the nuts-and-bolts of how to reopen safely.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine tells @MarthaRaddatz his statewide order mandating face masks be worn in stores went "too far."
— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) May 3, 2020
I think that’s the right call, on the theory that government shouldn’t do more than it absolutely needs to do. Many lockdown orders have outlived their usefulness for the same reason. In the first weeks of the outbreak a lockdown order might be justified not just in terms of a public emergency but as a way to communicate the singular urgency of the crisis. Social distancing had to begin immediately and on the widest possible scale in order to flatten the curve and preserve hospital capacity, so much so that businesses would be shuttered to slow the spread. If anyone had doubts that COVID-19 was an unprecedented threat, the unprecedented safety measures taken should have been enough to shake them out of their denial. Nothing says unique crisis like, “What do you mean restaurants aren’t open anymore?”
But we’re past that now. Most Americans recognize the threat. They understand that maintaining physical distance is the new normal and that masks are useful in preventing transmission. (Even if the surgeon general didn’t seem to understand that early on.) We’re in the “diminishing returns” phase of lockdowns. What’ll drive behavior going forward is the state of the epidemic locally. If cases flare, people are going to hunker down again without being forced. Remember, according to one data set, the reason Florida has escaped a disastrous surge of coronavirus deaths is because residents there began staying home voluntarily weeks before Ron DeSantis finally ordered them to. DeWine’s reversal on mandatory masks is of a piece with that. At this point, social pressure will probably do more to get people to wear masks than executive orders. As long as Ohio is willing to stand by business owners’ rights to protect their employees by requiring masks as a condition to entry, it’s fine to take the path of least resistance.
If everyone wore them, we might be able to have our cake and eat it too. A grand reopening *and* declining transmission rates:
Models show that if 80 percent of people wear masks that are 60 percent effective, easily achievable with cloth, we can get to an effective R0 of less than one. That’s enough to halt the spread of the disease. Many countries already have more than 80 percent of their population wearing masks in public, including Hong Kong, where most stores deny entry to unmasked customers, and the more than 30 countries that legally require masks in public spaces, such as Israel, Singapore, and the Czech Republic. Mask use in combination with physical distancing is even more powerful.
The obvious compromise here is for governors like DeWine to step back and not lay down heavy-handed rules mandating masks and for citizens to step up and wear them voluntarily as an act of basic consideration towards others. We all understand that there’s an enormous number of asymptomatic carriers walking around and that the only things limiting unwitting transmission from them to others are physical distance and masks. But some culture warriors won’t be deterred from finding a new grievance to agitate about even in the middle of a pandemic, even where their position poses a health hazard to the people around them. In some cases the great mask debate, which isn’t a debate for 90 percent of the country, has already turned dangerous:
In Flint, Mich., a security guard at a Family Dollar store was fatally shot on Friday afternoon after an altercation that the guard’s wife told The New York Times had occurred over a customer refusing to wear a face covering, which is required in Michigan in any enclosed public space…
In Stillwater, Okla., an emergency proclamation mandating face coverings led to so much verbal abuse in its first three hours on Friday — and a threat involving a gun — that officials swiftly amended it. Masks became encouraged, not required.
The Daily Beast noticed that early on in the pandemic mask-wearing was embraced by populist righties like Laura Ingraham for exactly the reason I noted, because it’s a form of compromise that reduces the need for lockdowns. Want to weaken the government’s rationale for draconian top-down precautions against infection? Then adopt much less draconian bottom-up ones. Now, though, Ingraham’s position has apparently evolved into comparing mask-wearing to Antifa or something. (She’s also grumbling about remdesivir, the one drug that’s been proven to work in clinical trials, because it doesn’t have the MAGA seal of approval that hydroxychloroquine does.) “Once the potential tools of liberation from stay-at-home orders,” wrote Will Sommer, “Trump supporters now see masks as a hated carryover from those same orders.”
Not all Trump supporters, certainly. But the noisiest ones, who stand in to cash in the most from whatever the culture-war flashpoint du jour is? Sure:
Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, the recent recipient of a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, was an early mask paranoiac. On April 20, he promoted the idea, later picked up by Ingraham, that masks are totems of control.
“It is clear that the mask is a symbol of fear, and when you see various people suggesting that we may now have masks as part of our public lives for the rest of our lives?” Limbaugh said. “Uh, why?”
For some conservatives, refusing to wear a mask has become just the latest way to thumb their noses at social distancing mandates.
“What kind of bizarre deity is it that makes it blasphemous to put on a face mask amid a deadly pandemic, because it’s a symbol of government control?” asks Rod Dreher of anti-lockdown protesters putting their health and the health of others at risk. A selfish, juvenile one?
I don’t know that it’s “control” that’s being protested — many jurisdictions, including DeWine’s Ohio, don’t require masks to be worn — so much as denialism about the disease. I also don’t buy this theory from NRO’s Peter Spiliakos, although I wish it were true:
2. Most of them have since become among the most zealous social enforcers of masks and lockdowns without the slightest change in their smug, hectoring, and judgemental tone.
— Peter Spiliakos (@petespiliakos) May 3, 2020
4. These right-wing talk show hosts prioritize finding pretexts to spite and troll the people who were right as a way of trying to reclaim their lost honor.
See? You're not better than me.
See? You're not the boss of me.
— Peter Spiliakos (@petespiliakos) May 3, 2020
He’s presuming an awful lot in presuming that they’re capable of shame. I think Politico got closest to the mark about what’s driving the anti-mask backlash: “On the right, where the mask is often seen as the symbol of a purported overreaction to the coronavirus, mask promotion is a target of ridicule, a sign that in a deeply polarized America almost anything can be politicized and turned into a token of tribal affiliation.” That point about “overreaction” is key. If you’re a COVID-19 truther of whatever stripe, there’s no better way to communicate that fact than by refusing to wear a mask. Anyone can be in denial about a deadly contagion, but declining to take the most basic precautions against infecting oneself and others is serious denial.
Anyway, DeWine understands that he’s competing with the truthers to influence Ohioans who remain open to persuasion on how seriously to take the disease. If he uses a heavy hand by requiring masks, they’ll leverage that as a new grievance. If he uses a lighter touch, there’s less material. He’s better off with exhortations than with mandates. Government usually is.