The Texas Mask Mystery

An illustration of a mask with a hole in the middle shaped like Texas
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

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.

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A subtler possibility is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter very much because other factors—such as weather, accelerating vaccinations, and a bit of luck—mattered more at the time. The coronavirus seems to spread less efficiently in hot and humid environments, which could partly explain why states such as Texas and Florida have managed to avoid higher-than-average COVID-19 deaths, despite their governors’ famous aversion to restrictions. Add this to the pace of vaccinations in March, and it’s possible that Abbott just got lucky, by lifting restrictions at a time when cases were destined to decline, no matter what.

Yet another explanation is that Abbott’s decision didn’t matter because nobody changed their behavior. According to the aforementioned Texas paper, Abbot’s decision had no effect on employment, movement throughout the state, or foot traffic to retailers. It had no effect in either liberal or conservative counties, nor in urban or exurban areas. The pro-maskers kept their masks on their faces. The anti-maskers kept their masks in the garbage. And many essential workers, who never felt like they had a choice to begin with, continued their pre-announcement habits.The governor might as well have shouted into a void.

Across the country, in fact, people’s pandemic behavior appears to be disconnected from local policy, which complicates any effort to know which COVID-19 policies actually work.

In November, for instance, a team of economists using private data to survey all 50 states concluded that state-ordered shutdowns and reopenings had only “small impacts on spending and employment.” Colorado and New Mexico both issued stay-at-home orders at the end of March 2020. Colorado partially reopened that May, several weeks before New Mexico, but this divergence resulted in no measurable difference between their economic recoveries. "Spending evolved nearly identically in these two states,” the economists wrote. Another paper focused on the Illinois-Iowa state line. Last spring, Illinois towns issued stay-at-home orders, while Iowa towns a few miles away did not. The decline in economic activity was just about the same on both sides of the border.

Decrees from the federal government may not affect Americans any more than local rules do. In a recent announcement, the CDC reversed its guidance for vaccinated individuals in a manner so dramatic that it struck some as the V-E Day of the pandemic. But survey results from The Economist and YouGov show that the big pivot hasn’t dramatically changed people’s masking behaviors. The main drivers of mask wearing have been ideology, partisanship, and vaccination status—which is itself highly, if imperfectly, correlated with ideology. Most people aren’t waiting on the CDC.

Governors don’t reopen or close economies. The CDC doesn’t put masks on or take them off citizens’ faces. A small number of elites don’t decide when everyone else feels safe enough to shop, eat inside, or get on a plane. People seem to make these decisions for themselves, based on some combination of local norms, political orientation, and personal risk tolerance that resists quick reversals, no matter what public health elites say.

If governor mandates don’t change behavior, and state shutdowns don’t change behavior, and CDC guidance doesn’t change behavior (so far), then where do our beliefs about this virus come from? Who shapes the way we think, feel, and act in response to complex and consequential things like a global pandemic?

I’ll first answer for myself: Skeptical of some official narratives from the Trump administration to the CDC, I’ve become my own private investigator on all things COVID-related. (It helps that I’m paid to be one.) I track what public-health officials say about the pandemic, but I don’t wait with bated breath for their pronouncements. Months before the CDC acknowledged that surface transmission of the coronavirus is vanishingly rare, I wrote that surface transmission is vanishingly rare. Weeks before the CDC acknowledged that outdoor mask mandates make no sense, I wrote that outdoor mask mandates make no sense. I’m not bragging; I’m … well, all right, I’m bragging a little.

But my private-detective work isn’t so special. At a time when citizens don’t trust their government and when information is abundant, anybody can, like me, become their own sleuth on all things COVID-related, piece together their own theory about what this virus is and how it spreads, and come up with their individual risk level. Many remote workers, hunched behind their laptops for 16 months, have had the opportunity to steep themselves in modern epidemiology. Meanwhile, a lot of essential workers never had a choice: They were flung into the teeth of the pandemic, without the protection of a computer screen, and some of them have developed their own general theories of risk and resilience.

So perhaps the Texas mystery isn’t much of a mystery at all. It’s just the latest piece of evidence that many Americans used the last year to seal themselves inside pandemic-information silos of their own construction—some for better, against tardy and tangled public-health guidance, and some for worse. Their settled views are now somewhat resistant to official utterances, which would explain both why rule-following liberals are having a hard time letting the pandemic go and why many people who have downplayed the risk of the pandemic don’t want to take an extremely effective vaccine. The calendar has flipped, but for many people, the traumas and outrages of 2020 haven’t quite gone away.