Three years ago, I remember sitting in the conference room at my day job and telling my colleagues how bad it’s about to get. I am no expert in epidemiology, but I learned enough about R0 values to see that the virus in Wuhan and Europe was spreading with a rate of above 2.0, meaning that for every one person infected, two more would become infected, and at the doubling-penny rate, a good part of the world would catch COVID-19 in a very short time, unless severe countermeasures were imposed.
We began a mad scramble for KN-95 masks, latex gloves, and lots of hand sanitizer. We along with 100 million other people, and those items evaporated from shelves like the afternoon rain in a south Florida mall parking lot. Mandatory masking, closing businesses and canceling all events where people gathered, and basically limiting public exposure was the method used to “stop the spread” and “flatten the curve.”
Of course, it became political. Our president at the time, instead of leading the country in one direction, decided to tell a huge lie—that COVID-19 would be over by Easter, 2020. Some of the measures taken (like limiting travel from China and Europe) were necessary, but by that time COVID-19 had already established itself in North America and our spread problem wasn’t coming from outside our borders.
Masks became the political equivalent of a shibboleth, a code word for whether you were on “their” side or “our” side. Depending on who “they” or “us” were, you either masked up while driving alone in your car, or you allowed yourself to be thrown out of various places by refusing to wear one at all.
In New Hampshire, rabid libertarians protested outside the governor’s mansion against Gov. Chris Sununu entirely reasonable mask mandate. We didn’t have the data then about the effectiveness of masking against COVID-19, so it made sense that an aerosol-spread variant needed some precautions.
But some researchers and doctors said the data was already available: N95 masks stop particles down to 0.3 microns, while the COVID-19 coronavirus size is 0.125 microns, smaller than what the mask can filter. Politifact was quick to call that reasoning “ridiculous.” They said the virus doesn’t float free in the air by itself—it’s bonded to small droplets of water or mucus from people talking, breathing and coughing. Makes sense, right?
Anybody who believed that masks were not the most effective way to stop the spread was not taken seriously. Even if that person was an expert themselves, they were hand-waved away, branded as spreaders of disinformation. But now that we’ve had some time to look at actual data, it appears that mask-wearing wasn’t the solution we were looking for. The most comprehensive peer-reviewed study thus far, led by an Oxford epidemiologist concluded that “wearing masks in the community probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of laboratory‐confirmed influenza/SARS‐CoV‐2 compared to not wearing masks…”
This was cited by the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who asked “will any lessons be learned?” Was the study perfect? No. Was it conclusive? Fairly, yes. Compared with hand hygiene, masks were not very effective. I can attest to that. I wore a mask everywhere except in my own home and my office (which I don’t share with anyone). I wore a mask to the store. I was the only one in my home who did any shopping. We were very careful—even taking the (ridiculous) step of washing groceries.
And in October, 2020, I got COVID, and my whole family did. I think it was when I went to Sam’s Club. Wearing a mask, I probably touched something—a pair or jeans or some shirt—and then didn’t properly sanitize my hands, and that’s how I got it.
“You weren’t wearing an N-95 mask!” you might say, and you’d be right. I was wearing a regular medical mask, with a cloth covering over it to make it look nicer. Those masks were determined by the same study to have been no less effective than the N-95, and there’s weak evidence supporting even that P2 respirators were measurably more effective than wearing no mask at all. But that evidence is shaky either way. In any case, I am not in the medical field and had no real access to that kind of PPE on a daily basis.
But many places didn’t care what mask you wore, as long as your face was covered. Three-year-olds had to wear masks at preschools, as well as their teachers. A three-year-old has zero hygiene discipline. Whether they wear a mask or not, short of a space helmet where they could not get their hands on their face, is a useless comparison.
The Chinese might have had it more right than we did: they locked people (sometimes welded) in their homes and apartments. Movement was completely restricted. Hygiene didn’t matter, because people weren’t allowed to go anywhere to mix. That was never going to happen in America, even in places like New York City. And here it was political: Black Lives Matter gatherings were considered more essential, though no less likely to become superspreader events, than a church service.
On the other end of the spectrum, then-President Donald Trump held a Rose Garden ceremony while knowingly infected, and likely spread the virus to over a dozen people. There’s no doubt that knowingly breathing your infected breath on people, masked or unmasked, is irresponsible.
The fact is that mask-wearing was, and continues to be, more of a social signal than an effective countermeasure for dealing with respiratory viruses. In Asia, many people, for years, have work masks, and mostly for air pollution, but some for previous SARS outbreaks. If people want to wear masks in the U.S., I have no problem with them wearing one. But when the mask-wearers—even now—insist that mask-wearing is something more than a rite, no different than wearing a yarmulke for Jews or a hijab for Muslims, versus some effective method of keeping me from becoming infected with COVID-19, I pat them on the back (after squirting some hand sanitizer on my palm) and say “bless your heart.”
If we can stop for a moment from being political about this, and that goes for the libertarian nihilists who think that anyone requiring them to do anything is an unacceptable infringement on their personal sovereignty, we will see that we can still be friends, while allowing room for disagreement about masks.
That means that some places, like my dentist’s office waiting room, or an urgent care facility, have signs saying they require masks. If I go there, I wear a mask, not because I want to argue the science with them, but because it’s their place and I honor their wishes. If I don’t want to wear a mask, I can find another dentist. My freedom is not infringed by my dentist, just as I wouldn’t require him to not wear a mask to work on me. (I am glad he wears not one, but two masks. First, because nobody wants to smell breakfast-breath from their patients every morning, especially not mine. Second, because well, I have my mouth open and if he’s not masked, he should at least buy me dinner before an open-mouth viral kiss six inches from my head.)
The only thing that’s political is that we make it political. COVID-19 isn’t gone. It’s here, and will be here a hundred years from now, in some form, just like “flu season” is a derivative of the 1916 Spanish Flu pandemic. If you want your COVID-19 booster, like your flu booster, get it. If you don’t then you run some risk. If you get infected, stay home. Don’t think a mask will protect everyone else.
But if you’re not infected, and neither am I, don’t get all sanctimonious if I don’t wear a mask in public. It’s not political. Let’s agree that there’s room to disagree.
Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.
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