In early March, Texas became the first state to abolish its mask mandate and lift capacity constraints for all businesses. Conservatives hailed Governor Greg Abbott’s decision, while liberals predicted doom and death and President Joe Biden disparaged it as “Neanderthal thinking.”
Nine weeks later, the result seems to be less than catastrophic. In fact, in a new paper, economists at Bentley University and San Diego State University found that Abbott’s order had practically no effect on COVID-19 cases. “The predictions of reopening advocates and opponents failed to materialize,” the authors concluded.
How could a policy so consequential—or at least so publicly contested—do so little?
One possible interpretation is that lifting mandates did almost nothing because masks in particular do almost nothing. This viewpoint enjoys widespread popularity among conservative outlets such as Fox News, and is likely behind Abbott’s more aggressive decision to ban mask mandates in Texas.
This explanation has a few holes. Plenty of evidence suggests that masks almost certainly do something, even if they’re not perfect. Research in the Journal of the American Medical Association, for instance, found that masks “limit both exhalation and inhalation of infectious virus” and that universal masking “can help reduce transmission.” A meta-analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “places and time periods where mask usage is required or widespread have shown substantially lower community transmission.” And several analyses published in Nature reported that surgical masks and unvented KN95 respirators reduce particle emission by up to 90 percent.