Saturday, March 06, 2021

Masks and Personal Freedom

This week Governor Greg Abbott of Texas announced the state's mask mandate will end March 10, saying citizens "no longer need government running our lives." Yet, in a subsequent interview with KTRK TV in Houston, he said, "We are still urging people to continue to wear the mask."

I've been surprised that masks became and remain such a lightning rod in the country's response to COVID-19. More precisely, the issue is whether the government has the authority to require wearing masks in a public space.

The argument for wearing masks is they reduce the risk of transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which has led to the deaths of some 525,000 Americans (and counting). As part of its responsibility for public safety and health, governments have the authority to require wearing masks, at least in public spaces, to reduce the risk of infection, hospitalization, and death.

Those opposed to mandates argue governments are infringing on an individual's freedom and liberty, adding people will act responsibly if presented with the evidence, presumably then choosing to wear a mask.

I side with a government mandate for these reasons:

1) The government has a responsibility for public safety and health, with the authority to impose regulations to ensure appropriate standards.

The history of the country has been a progression of government regulation to improve safety and health, either as society gains more knowledge or to address violations. Perhaps stop signs and red lights were controversial when first proposed, yet today we accept them, trading the expectation to safely drive to the grocery store for the loss of time and personal freedom.

2) Behavioral and cultural change takes time, while a pandemic grows exponentially.

When COVID-19 first exploded in New York City, then spread across the country, we didn't have much time to socialize wearing masks and overcome the inconvenience, discomfort, and self-consciousness doing so. If I'm the only one in a store wearing a mask, I'll take it off so I won't stand out and be embarrassed — particularly since wearing masks quickly became polarized, an unfortunate symbol of a different argument.

Intuitively, wearing a mask reduces the transmission of particles to and from the lungs, and much experimental data confirms their effectiveness. Their use is accepted in other countries: I've seen many people wearing masks in China, whether to prevent disease or reduce breathing pollutants from the air.

I doubt my reasoning will convince those who see this as a violation of personal freedom. I suspect the issue is not COVID-19, it's the relationship between the individual and society. COVID-19 is simply a battle in a much more expansive philosophical war.

Also posted at my Hey World blog.