If President John F. Kennedy were alive today, he might quip: “Mask – not what your country can do for you, but mask – what you can do for your country.”
Truth is, whether, when, how, for what length of time, under what conditions people are wearing masks – is getting pretty complicated. In the end, prudence may be the best bet.
Putting aside politics – and all other issues – the use of masks to slow disease transmission is not novel. Doctors, nurses, caregivers have long worn masks, for individual and group protection.
The issue is controversial only because people do not like being told what to do – and in America have rights; masks are less pleasant than going about without one, and medical advice has varied.
Although most understand masks minimize germ transmission – which is why medical personnel wear them in an emergency, examination, and operating rooms – the value in various settings, using unchanged or unwashed masks, versus the burden and inconvenience, is increasingly debated.
On facts, some things are clear. Mask utility in closed spaces, where air is less well-circulated, is high. As medical studies in 2021 show, “a primary route of transmission of COVID-19 is via respiratory particles,” and “the preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces transmissibility …” See, An evidence review of face masks against COVID-19.
One recent report: “A large, randomized trial led by researchers at Stanford Medicine and Yale University has found that wearing a surgical face mask over the mouth and nose is an effective way to reduce the occurrence of COVID-19 in community settings.” See, Surgical masks reduce COVID-19 spread, large-scale study shows.
Moreover, wide literature surveys – capturing big pools of medical data – offer fresh insight on mask use, seeming to confirm a new idea that masks can have inhalation and exhalation value.
New studies emerge weekly, making a summary overwhelming – so best to note sources offering real insight. One opens: “Less emphasis was laid on inhalation protection from virus transmission, an important aspect …,” thus “this review provides the most up‐to‐date information on the transmission modes of COVID‐19 virus in terms of droplets and aerosols,” “roles of masks in disease prevention and transmission … aspects of exhalation isolation and inhalation protection …” See, How effective is a mask in preventing COVID‐19 infection?.
In short, an overview of cutting-edge medical literature offers a cleaner view of mask utility – putting legal and political issues aside. Early confusions are resolved in favor of value.
Even so, understanding how government and private sector treat masks – varying approaches, mandates, bans, and restrictions – is also important. So, here is a top view, for the moment.
At present, indoor requirements – regardless of vaccine – are prevalent in some states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington, plus DC and Puerto Rico. For those unvaccinated, California, Connecticut, and New York still require indoor use.
Some states require outdoor mask use, such as Oregon and Washington (for events over 500). And even in states with no indoor or outdoor requirements, municipalities may have mandates. Then, of course, independent of all government policies, businesses have their own policies.
Looking back and ahead, some states lifted mandates, only to reconsider after “delta” emerged. In July, the CDC suggested those vaccinated wear masks indoors and in high-risk settings.
The CDC also urged masks in specific locations, such as health care venues, nursing homes, prisons, shelters, and on public transportation, such as on buses, in airports, train stations.
Interestingly, almost 30 states with mandates lifted them, and nearly a dozen never had them.
That said, masks are pressed by cities and counties, triggering pushback by states that do not favor mandates, such as Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Montana, Tennessee, and Texas.
Confusing are local rules since they vary by venue, situation, age, where, and when – and come with exemptions based on disabilities, beliefs, and activities in the location for which rules exist.
Businesses also have the right to set rules and do for varying reasons, ranging from accommodating patrons to avoiding liability. Even Congress has rules, which have faced resistance, complaint, and rolling controversy.
All this brings us back to basics. While federal, state, municipality, school district, business, and other public and private venues all have their own rules, prudence is a sound, simple guide.
Americans are well advised – even these days – to “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” JFK’s laconic guidance. At the same time, with a passing smile, we might note the variant: “Mask – not what your country can do for you, but mask – what you can do for your country.”