As cases of COVID-19 surge throughout the United States, Americans have been instructed that the wearing of a mask, or cloth face covering, is the key to reopening the economy. To stem the surge of COVID-19, government officials in some parts of the country have issued edicts requiring individuals to wear masks. To no surprise, many Americans have refused to comply with these government orders because they are alleged to trample on individual liberty.
The divide on mask mandates has been framed as Science versus the Ignorant Masses. However, from the onset of the pandemic, medical professions and public health experts did not fully understand the transmissibility and infectious nature of this virus. United States public health officials like the Surgeon General initially advised against wearing masks, which later turned out to be cover for an inadequate stockpile of personal protective equipment. Rather than instructing Americans to utilize makeshift masks until shortages could be successfully addressed, some public health officials misled the populace.
On CBS’s Face the Nation, Surgeon General Adams said the following, “Everything we knew about coronaviruses before that point told us that people were not likely to spread when they were asymptomatic…So the science at the time suggested that there was not a high degree of asymptomatic spread. We learned more.” Science, by its nature, is an evolving field.
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There is accumulating evidence that masks may be protective for both the user of the mask and for others near that individual, especially when they are in high density areas or indoors. Separately, Goldman Sachs has found that “face masks are associated with significantly better coronavirus outcomes…Our baseline estimate is that a national mandate could raise the percentage of people who wear masks by 15 [percentage points] and cut the daily growth rate of confirmed cases by 1.0 [percentage point] to 0.6%.”
As the pandemic has intensified, both Republican and Democratic elected officials are slowly falling in line with the scientific consensus and mandating masks so why are some conservatives continuing to push back? Critics suggest that mask mandates violate their constitutional rights. These edicts are problematic, to some, given that they derive their lawful authority from extremely broad language. For example, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s Executive Order relies on Section 418.011 of the Texas Government Code which states the “governor is responsible for meeting…the dangers to the state and people presented by disasters.”
Some conservatives allege that such overbroad language could be used to justify nearly anything. While the law in question varies, this argument is mirrored in Justice Scalia’s dissent in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (the Obamacare case). In NFIB v. Sebelius, Justice Scalia questions whether or not the government can compel individuals to purchase broccoli since “the failure of some to eat broccoli may be found to deprive them of a newly discovered cancer-fighting chemical which only that food contains.” In both scenarios, the question is whether or not individuals are free to make choices for themselves. While the concept of universal masking may be scientifically sound, underlying this conversation is the age-old ideological fight over how much authority the government should have to protect each and every one of us.