When the mayor of Washington, D.C., announced changes to the city’s mask mandate last week, spit hit the fan. As of March 1, District residents will need to cover up in order to attend school, go to a library, or ride in a taxi. But gyms, sports arenas, concert venues, and houses of worship—you know, all the places where people like to breathe hard or sing and shout in close proximity—will be facial free-for-alls.
If the goal of mask policies is to reduce transmission of the coronavirus as much as possible, then D.C.’s new rules are difficult to reason out. Why should children, who are generally at low risk of severe disease, have to mask while sitting quietly in class when their more vulnerable elders can sing, unmasked, in church? It seems arbitrary, inconsistent, absurd.
Then again, so does just about every community mask mandate. If the rules don’t apply equally in different settings, they’re unfair. If they do, they’re ridiculous: Good luck complying in a restaurant, bar, or airport food court. Pointing out the logical flaws in mask mandates is easy. Fixing them is hard—and important. Cases may be trending down in nearly every part of the United States, but this surge will almost certainly not be our last, just as Omicron will almost certainly not be the last variant to infect the world. When infection rates begin to rise again, local and state governments can try to implement mask policies that actually make sense to the people being ordered around.
Take my city, Baltimore, as an example. Everyone older than 2 must wear a mask “indoors at any location other than a private home,” including at “Foodservice Establishments.” Yet indoor dining, which is associated with increasing COVID-19 transmission rates, has been allowed for more than a year, and diners do not need to be vaccinated. Performers are allowed to sing, speak, and play the oboe sans mask, despite the fact that maskless music has been known to be a potent source of contagion since the early days of the pandemic. I frequently walk past restaurants with MASK REQUIRED FOR ENTRY signs taped to the front door and their windows fogged up from the breath of maskless patrons. And in spaces where masks are both required and feasible—say, pharmacies and grocery stores—hardly anyone is enforcing their use.
It all feels rather performative and silly. Why have a mandate if it can be so easily ignored? “The public sees right through that, and I think that’s led to a lot of the backlash,” Joseph Allen, the director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program, told me. To Allen, mask mandates’ contradictions and compliance failures are signs that the U.S. should stop trying so hard to influence human behavior, and start focusing on improving ventilation and filtration in buildings. Masking, because it’s obviously visible and has become unavoidably politicized, is the pandemic-mitigation strategy that’s easiest for most people to notice—which might explain why it’s received so much attention from the public and the media. But structural improvements can operate in the background, protecting people without making them feel inconvenienced.
One common (though not definitively proven) argument against mask mandates is that they don’t actually change people’s behavior: People who would’ve masked anyway cover up, and people who don’t want to mask wear theirs badly or ignore the rules. “Anyone who has been in any sort of public location at any time during the pandemic recognizes that mask mandates are not followed consistently,” says David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. But even disregarded mandates could affect people in other, helpful ways. “From my perspective, the main benefit is not so much the masking itself, but the message to society that this wave is not yet over,” Dowdy told me. A mask mandate may not magically swaddle the faces of everyone in its jurisdiction, but it could remind already enthusiastic maskers to avoid large gatherings, or lead non-maskers to give the people around them a little more space.
Mask mandates are easier to enforce in highly controlled environments, such as schools. A particular state’s or city’s values and political makeup matter for compliance too. “If it’s a community in which most people are already going to mask and you just need to convince a few more, in that case a mandate actually might be beneficial,” says Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Such communities are widespread: About two-thirds of Americans have consistently supported the idea of a state or local mask mandate since August, when a bimonthly Axios/Ipsos poll first started asking the question.
The other 30-something percent of the American public likely includes people who have lost faith in mask mandates that don’t seem to make sense. The way for decision makers to earn back their trust, Kirk Sell told me, is by listening to each community, taking their needs seriously, and tailoring policies to fit them. A town whose top priorities are keeping schools open and local business afloat could mandate masks and testing in schools, but allow adults to go mask-free in bars, which students can avoid. A town that wants to avoid straining its hospitals might flatten the curve by enforcing mask requirements in high-capacity settings such as concert halls and sports arenas. If rules are going to be applied unevenly—with mask mandates in some locations but not others—the tightest restrictions should apply in buildings such as grocery stores, workplaces, post offices, and schools, says Anne Sosin, a public-health expert at Dartmouth College. These are not necessarily the places where the virus is most likely to spread, but elderly and immunocompromised people may not be able to avoid them as easily as they could a bar or a hockey game.
“I think that people have this expectation that everything has to be perfect, as far as how the logic works together,” Kirk Sell said. But no mandate is ever going to be perfectly consistent, and that’s okay. Mask policies can still make sense, so long as they serve a community’s shared goals.