Masks aren’t quite as crucial in uncrowded and outdoor spaces in regions where the virus isn’t circulating much. They’re arguably essential in crowded and poorly ventilated areas, particularly in hot spots, and easy availability and even targeted enforcement should be the rule in those situations. The places where masks won’t do as much good now may be tomorrow’s areas of concern. Authorities in those areas should be ready to respond.
Eventually, the focus can shift to the next crisis, where masks can play a role in prevention instead of catch-up. Pandemic-scale stockpiles for broad public use should be comparatively easy and cheap to manufacture over the long run, once the immediate threat of the epidemic is over. There should be a quicker trigger going forward to recommend or require masks when an airborne threat emerges, and robust plans to deploy them as a broad public-health measure. And hopefully by then, the dangerous politicization of wearing masks and taking other common-sense health measures that’s occurring in some places today will have been overcome by more effective public messaging and education.
Pandemic preparation is hard and is only effective and durable under good leadership. Learning a relatively easy lesson about masks could help provide at least a bit of insurance.