Americans could scarcely be blamed for feeling confused about whether or not to wear a mask right now. A week ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended into May a nationwide mask mandate for travel on airplanes, trains, buses and other forms of public transportation. Then on Monday, a federal judge in Florida struck it down.
Meanwhile, some local governments and private employers are reasserting mask mandates in response to rising COVID-19 transmission rates because of virus variants. In Baltimore, that includes Johns Hopkins University, where earlier this month, school officials reinstituted a mask requirement in common areas, in addition to an existing requirement in classrooms, in response to a spike in cases. And in Philadelphia, a mask mandate went into effect Monday that extends to all public indoor spaces — except on public transit because of Florida Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s recent ruling. That means transit workers in the City of Brotherly Love don’t have to wear masks in vehicles or stations, no matter how tightly packed, but if they walk into their office, eat at a restaurant or shop in a store, no matter how empty, they have to put one on.
Historians will one day look back at the COVID pandemic and devote whole chapters to this nation’s love-hate relationship with masks. Whatever uncertainty about what public health protections should be required at which stage of an outbreak, there’s simply no question that politics, disinformation and mixed messaging have made matters far worse than they needed to be.
Judge Mizelle is part of the problem, arguing against the federal mask mandate in her ruling by claiming that wearing one “cleans nothing.” Who ever said it did? “At most,” she continued, [the mask] “traps virus droplets. But it neither ‘sanitizes’ the person wearing the mask nor ‘sanitizes’ the conveyance.”
That’s exactly the point: It traps virus droplets, either yours inside your mask or someone else’s outside your mask. If you ask us, she’s made the case for continuing the mandate, not dropping it. And we haven’t even raised the issue yet of her having been deemed unqualified for the judiciary by the American Bar Association after President Donald Trump appointed her to a lifetime role in 2020 — a point at which her only trial experience was as an intern. But we digress.
While we find Judge Mizelle’s argument unconvincing — and ill-timed given the latitude the CDC and other public health agencies have been granted in the past and the current uptick in positivity rates — Americans still have the option of acting responsibly, preferably while well-informed. The CDC still recommends that “people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time,” and we concur.
Wearing a masks makes it less likely that the user will either contract or spread the COVID virus. Indeed, the science on this is well-established. Masks are useful in reducing the spread of any airborne pathogen. That’s why you don’t see surgeons in the operating room telling co-workers that they intend to remove their masks because, “hey, the patient may be in a vulnerable position but my mouth and nose are getting hot.” And let’s remember that COVID-19 isn’t like other viruses. It has killed more than 1 million Americans (including more than 14,400 Marylanders) to date. Even if the latest variants are proving less deadly and more people are vaccinated than before, the risks of “long” COVID-19 on health should not be ignored.
So here’s what experts counsel on masks: If you wear a well-fitted mask, preferably an N-95, and follow other good practices, such as social distancing, hand washing and self-testing when appropriate, you are far less likely to contract or spread the coronavirus. It’s really that simple. One must make some judgments, of course. Staying outdoors or socializing indoors at a time when local transmission rates are low? It’s probably fine to skip a mask. But are you going to be in close quarters indoors with strangers while variants like the BA.2 are high or on the rise? Then it’s best to take these precautions. And, of course, one must comply with local restrictions that are — to restate the obvious — subject to change.
Finally, we would like the think that wearing a mask in public whenever possible (and appropriate) ought to be seen as a sign of respect toward others. We don’t know everyone’s personal story. There are some who can’t be vaccinated because of underlying health conditions, for example. Mandates, whether for the routine vaccinations of childhood or masking during a once-in-a-century plague, remain a useful tool to reduce the severity of public health threats. But there’s also something to be said for common courtesy.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.