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May 5, 2022

Mask Mania Dies Hard

Mandated public masking did more harm than good.

As we tip-toe back to “normalcy,” one vestige of the painful pandemic keeps hanging around. It’s the MASK, the ubiquitous, irritating, virtue-signaling — and largely ineffective — COVID shield.

I suspect that years from now, when COVID anxiety is a thing of the past, the masks will be our most vivid, visceral memory — the protective measure that outlasted sanitizing sprays, two-minute hand-washing, social distancing, vaccination cards, and even lockdowns. Masks were the most visible, most pervasive, and arguably the most politicized of mandated COVID protective measures.

And they were the least effective.

That point will be debated for sure, and there’s still much to be learned from the pandemic. But after two years, the accumulated data on public masking speaks for itself. Rates of COVID hospitalization and death have been essentially the same in the cities, states, and countries that imposed strict masking requirements as in those that imposed none. Masking seems not to have helped at all, anywhere.

That’s no surprise. I’ve been a mask skeptic from the start — although an informed one. The idea that a loose-fitting piece of cloth draped over one’s nose and mouth can intercept much of any contaminant, inhaled or exhaled, contradicts all that I’ve learned in 50 years in the nuclear energy field. Entering a radiologically contaminated area (at the Savannah River Site, for example) the single most important rule of effective respiratory protection is to have an airtight seal between face and mask — rarely the case in every-day public mask wearing.

The downsides of mandated masking go far beyond inconvenience. Masks can carry germs as well as block them. They can cause skin and breathing problems. They muffle speech and hide facial expressions, making personal interaction difficult in all circumstances and disastrous for young school children.

Nevertheless, public masking has long been a centerpiece of CDC COVID guidance — ostensibly following the science, although there’s very little science involved in floppy, paper masks. Most of us, grumpy or not, comply. But imposing a scientifically ambiguous requirement inevitably leads to arbitrary and capricious application — just as we’ve seen for two years.

For me, the tipping point came a month ago. For the first time since COVID, my wife Peggy and I scheduled a round trip coast-to-coast flight to visit family in California. From the moment of airport entry at one coast to airport departure at the other — about 10 hours each way — full-time masking was required. We thought that we’d left behind COVID craziness, but not in the friendly skies of United Airlines.

To their credit (they surely don’t like the mask rule any more than we do), the UAL staff enforced it relentlessly. Like high school hall monitors, flight attendants roamed the aisles reminding everyone that masks must be worn “over mouth AND nose.”

My wife and I eat together at nearly every meal. But in this antiseptically clean airplane, equipped with HEPA-filtered ventilation system, we were strictly enjoined to remain masked even when eating — allowed only to momentarily pull aside the mask for “bites and sips.” Seriously??

Even then, I was inclined to go easy on the rule-makers, assuming that bureaucracy would soon catch up with reality. But just a week later, the Biden administration announced a two-month extension of mandated masking on airplanes. Then, when a federal judge overruled that extension, the administration appealed. This was no bureaucratic oversight — they truly want to keep the mandate in force.

It’s always fun to bash politicians for doing dumb things, but there’s a larger point here. When a public policy, even if well intended, is found to be both ineffective and harmful, it should be revised or retracted. Hiding behind “abundance of caution” doesn’t cut it.

Faced with inconsistent requirements and conditioned by incessant finger-wagging, many people evidently feel safer wearing a mask and will probably continue to do so. That’s fine. But many also wrongly assume that those who disagree are simply selfish, unwilling to make even a small sacrifice for the common good.

Those polarized views could have been avoided, had the administration simply altered course when dictated by new knowledge. Unfortunately, public leaders usually are loathe to admit missteps, and a pandemic that has threatened every American should never have been politicized.

COVID is not over. But happily, the worst is probably behind us — the pandemic seems to be taking the course of all previous pandemics, shifting from health crisis to manageable health threat (endemic), as the population becomes increasingly resistant through prior infection and/or vaccination.

And for certain, the mask mandate is a turkey, well past its “sell-by” date.

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