I would not have guessed a month ago that one of the loudest voices for keeping mask mandates on the books while vaccinations ramp up would be the Republican governor of one of the reddest states in the union.
Just like how, given the degree of vaccine hesitancy among rural white conservatives, I also wouldn’t have guessed at the start of the vaccine program that West Virginia would be killing it relative to most other states. Measured in terms of the percentage of the population that’s received two doses, WV ranks third out of 50. Only Alaska and New Mexico have done better.
There’s no point debating the utility of mask mandates, though. It’s a proxy issue for risk tolerance. Jim Justice is risk-averse: Rather than celebrate the stunning decline in daily cases in the U.S. by easing restrictions now, he wants to keep them in place for just a little while longer to buy time for more people to get vaccinated before there’s a new outbreak. And he’s not shy about it.
West Virginia Governor @JimJusticeWV on other states lifting mask mandates during COVID-19
“For crying out loud, if you could be a little more prudent…for us to get on rock solid ground, that’s the approach West Virginia’s going to take." pic.twitter.com/G0BzkOJLED
— Face The Nation (@FaceTheNation) March 7, 2021
The CDC issued new data on mask mandates a few days ago and this too became a proxy for risk tolerance. To mask skeptics, the seemingly negligible decline in infections driven by mandates is proof that they don’t matter. To others, the fact that there’s any decline at all is reason enough to keep such a minimal imposition in place while we build towards herd immunity.
The reductions in growth rates varied from half a percentage point to nearly 2 percentage points. That may sound small, but the large number of people involved means the impact grows with time, experts said.
“Each day that growth rate is going down, the cumulative effect — in terms of cases and deaths — adds up to be quite substantial,” said Gery Guy Jr., a CDC scientist who was the study’s lead author.
Reopening restaurant dining was not followed by a significant increase in cases and deaths in the first 40 days after restrictions were lifted. But after that, there were increases of about 1 percentage point in the growth rate of cases and — later — 2 to 3 percentage points in the growth rate of deaths.
The strongest argument against mask mandates is the conservatarian point that people aren’t idiots and don’t need to be led around by the nose by their governor to get them to mask up. Heavy majorities of Americans across the political spectrum are wearing masks in indoor public spaces for their own protection:
People aren’t children. They don’t take their cues on how to prevent themselves from contracting a killer disease from their state’s government daddy figure — or so the theory goes.
The reality is more complicated:
Approximately a fifth of Central Texans will stop wearing their face masks on Wednesday, according to results of a KXAN Facebook poll. A majority of those responding say they plan to keep wearing their masks for a long time…
Out of the first 975 responses, just shy of one in five (19.5%) said they will stop wearing their masks “as soon as it’s allowed.” That will be Wednesday in Texas.
Not a scientific poll, but some people obviously do take their cues on masks from the government. Some businesses too: Gold’s Gym recently announced that masks will no longer be required in its Texas locations after Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandates even though gyms are hot spots for infection.
All of this would be a relatively easy libertarian puzzle to solve if declining to wear a mask increased your own risk of getting COVID but no one else’s. But it doesn’t work that way, of course. The chief benefit of mask-wearing is preventing the wearer from infecting others. Some who take the masks off will end up starting chains of transmission, just as we’re on the cusp of the vaccines being widely available to the general public. Why not keep the mandate in place for 30 more days then, asks Justice?
I’ll leave you with Fauci lamenting today how politicized certain pandemic precautions have become. He doesn’t dwell on masks specifically but it’s clear what he’s talking about.
Dr. Anthony Fauci: "Of all of the pandemic outbreaks that I have had to deal with…I have never seen a situation that even came close to this with regard to divisiveness over ideology – political ideology – that actually swept over into the issue of public health." #NLCCCC pic.twitter.com/BgFP8Om2Q9
— CSPAN (@cspan) March 8, 2021