The new wave of Covid-19 infections breaking over the nation has proven a deadly threat. That the surge is almost exclusively centered on America’s unvaccinated population is cold comfort for hospital systems in areas of the country with lower-than-average immunization rates.
Hospitals in states like Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Missouri are becoming overridden with Covid-19 patients, many of whom are now younger thanks to a high rate of vaccine uptake among the older, more vulnerable populations even in states with lower immunization rates. Against this backdrop, it is understandable to see some municipalities once again appealing to mid-pandemic mitigation measures like mask mandates.
It's understandable — but not excusable. The effect of such mandates at this late date and with over half the adult population fully immunized presents as much risk as reward for the nation’s policymakers.
Los Angeles County was the first jurisdiction to reimpose universal indoor mask mandates on the public regardless of an individual’s vaccination status. St. Louis then followed suit. Savannah, Georgia, and Provincetown, Massachusetts, were not far behind. Many other municipalities are for now only “recommending” that businesses and individuals again observe indoor masking.
Though these mandates and recommendations have contradicted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance regarding masking requirements for vaccinated people, Biden administration officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, have applauded these measures.
On Sunday, Fauci suggested the CDC is re-evaluating its recommendations and may even reinstate masking guidance for all — fully vaccinated or not — in the coming days. His prediction came true on Tuesday with the news that the CDC and Biden administration will be both be recommending vaccinated adults return to wearing masks indoors — in some circumstances and areas of the country, at least.
The primarily Democratic lawmakers who believe the return of mask mandates to be not just necessary but supported by much of the public have plenty of evidence to reinforce that assumption. For example, a well-publicized Hill-HarrisX poll published last week found that fully 74 percent of Americans support reissuing mask mandates if “there were a spike in your area.” But a closer look at that poll suggests something is off. That survey found that 71 percent of independents and nearly 6 in 10 Republicans agreed with the premise — suggesting, perhaps, that by “your area,” these respondents really did mean your area, not their own neighborhood.
A late July Inside California Politics/Emerson College survey of Californians who are directly impacted by the return of mask mandates delivered more believable findings. In that poll, a plurality, 49 percent, supported the return of masking, 39 percent were opposed and another 13 percent declined to take a position. Ask yourself whether support or opposition to such a scheme is likely to grow over the next several weeks — particularly if public health officials like former Food and Drug Administration director Scott Gottlieb are right and the Covid-19 wave settling over the nation now is closer to its end than its beginning.
The question before policymakers isn’t just what’s popular but what’s going to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Sadly, imposing mask mandates on vaccinated people seems fated for now to exacerbate the problems associated with a significant unvaccinated population.
If L.A.’s experience is indicative, a universal indoor masking requirement is not the answer. First, it lacks any enforcement mechanism. The Los Angeles County sheriff has already said his department will devote no resources to ensuring the new mask ordinance is observed, adding instead that the city should pursue “mandates that are both achievable and supported by science.”
Second, voluntary observance of this edict has been spotty at best. One New York Times dispatch from the city’s poshest enclaves found that even the demographics most likely to welcome the return of masking have struggled with the new mandate. If they can’t make it work in the “cafes, patisseries and brunch spots” of Beverly Hills, they’re not even trying at Marci’s Sports Bar and Grill in the more conservative neighborhood of Santa Clarita.
To hear Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer tell it, the county has far more sympathy for the city’s unvaccinated population than the business owners and responsible individuals who did their part over the last 18 months. Ferrer recently told The New York Times she didn’t “consider wearing masks a disruptive mandate at all.” Sure, “some people might be inconvenienced by it, but it doesn’t disrupt customary business processes,” which dubiously assumes the public will not base determinations about the businesses they patronize on whether they’re enforcing the mandate or not.
It is not at all clear that this burden is being imposed on the citizenry with the aim of driving vaccination rates higher.
“Many of them are really scared,” Ferrer generously said of unvaccinated people. “These aren’t crazy people who are just being obstinate. Before we dismiss people as being completely irresponsible, many actually can’t get vaccinated for health reasons. We all have to commit ourselves to helping people who have concerns in order to make progress.”
While it’s somewhat speculative, a spotty regime in which masking is only gingerly enforced on Rodeo Drive and not at all in less visible sections of the city will lead people who do not want to be masked indoors (and who are far less concerned about the prospect of a Covid-19 infection than fully immunized people) to select for venues that don’t enforce masking. The result will be to corral those without Covid-19 immunities into spaces where there are no mitigation measures in place — undermining America’s notable progress toward herd immunity. In sum, the cure suggested here could be much worse than the disease.
We can only speculate about the effect semi-voluntary indoor masking requirements will have on public health, but the political consequences are easier to envision. If the CDC extends its reversal on masking guidance to the rest of the country, it will deal a serious blow to the Biden administration’s efforts to claim that it had conquered the virus.
According to Goldman Sachs, the delta variant of Covid-19’s spread has already put downward pressure on the post-pandemic economic recovery that will slow the rate of growth even without draconian top-down interventions.
“While most consumers appear to be comfortable returning to high-contact services, some are still hesitant,” Goldman Sachs economist Ronnie Walker wrote. Although the “appetite for new government-mandated restrictions appears low,” the reimposition of mitigation measures is likely to reinforce public fears that have already reduced consumer spending in the services sector — keeping “Covid fears alive” and “delaying a full recovery.”
So what are policymakers to do if not imposing indoor mask mandates on municipalities where nearly 90 percent of the public is already fully immunized? The answer is staring us in the face: If the near-term objective is to maximize the number of fully vaccinated people, the answer would seem to be to reward vaccinated people.
Private enterprises have been experimenting with perks for vaccinated people for months by allowing them to go where those without proof of inoculation cannot. VIP access, gratis services and even restricting entry into certain venues only to those who produce their CDC-provided card — proving one’s status violates no anti-discrimination statute.
State and local governments can encourage such a regime without mandating it. Those who would go to absurd lengths to get around such private restrictions will find it much easier to get one of the several no-cost and easily available vaccinations. Lastly, the decentralized nature of this system — administered not by faceless bureaucrats but by local proprietors who maintain pre-existing relationships with their clientele — is more likely to convince holdouts that it’s time to get the shot.
The alternative envisioned advocates of a restored mid-pandemic status quo is both politically parlous for Democrats and unlikely to do more than force people who are already fully vaccinated back into masks. There will always be a substantial population of Americans who will not under any circumstances vaccinate themselves. Our objective must not be to isolate this demographic but to integrate it into the much larger vaccinated population, minimizing the risk that they will become infected and infect others. Any other policy seems doomed to fail on its own merits. And voters don’t often reward failure.