• Tom Cleary

To Mask or Not to Mask


The growing debate about whether or not to wear masks is a microcosm of the larger debate about how we should react to the pandemic. It has typically brought out many cultural and political fault lines and is predictably acrimonious. So, what are we to make of this facet of this debate?

I would suggest that the same guidelines for a free and responsible people should apply regarding the mask issue as should apply in the rest of our response to this crisis. That is, a freely and voluntarily cooperative society should balance the risks and rewards of mask wearing, the same as they should balance the risks and rewards from other pandemic responses. The government is the last entity that should be deciding; as we have seen repeatedly throughout history up to and including the pandemic, that it cannot make rational choices to balance the necessary tradeoffs between risk mitigation and continued human activity.

First, some basics. Do masks actually help? It appears that the evidence is mixed, and medical opinion is split. A good review of both sides of the issue can be seen here. There are studies that suggest that masks can be effective and there studies that suggest not. There are medical professionals that are firmly of the position that they do not work and may be counterproductive. The CDC is now of the opinion that they are needed but just a couple of months ago they said no they were not particularly helpful. This does not mean they are wrong, as evidence can reveal the need for a change in position. However, it is good to be cautious of such stark reversals in position. There is really no empirical evidence that they are particularly helpful, but neither is there clear empirical evidence that they are not helpful.

There is also a school of thought that holds that they are possibly counterproductive, in that they may give people a false sense of security (indeed all current recommendation to use them stress all the other things people should be doing; like hand washing and social distancing), and/or leading people to touch their face too much as they fidget with the masks. It is important to keep all of this in mind if faced with the rock-solid assurance of mask proponents that they are critical. What I am about to say, however, does not in fact depend upon empirical data but it is good to understand the pros and cons of any issue.

So, for those who defend individual rights and a free and open society, the decision should rest in the hands of individuals and voluntarily associated groups to decide if, when, and how to wear masks. If you want to wear one then, by all means wear one. If you require people to wear a mask to come on to your property, to do work for instance, then that is your right (others can weigh for themselves if they accept your terms). If you are an owner or manager of a business and require employees and/or customers to wear a mask that is also your right. Again, others can weigh the tradeoffs for themselves.

On the other hand, the government should not mandate a top down, one size fits all requirement to wear masks. First, it is violative of people’s rights. Second, if the government is wrong and masks are ineffective or counterproductive, then they have mandated a damaging policy that will be difficult to change, as government does not have the same efficient feedback of information as a cooperative populace. As in all things, the best outcomes are people freely interacting and offering a variety of solutions to work the problem. This will ALWAYS produce better outcomes, both morally and practically.

This leaves us with the question of how to deal with the shamers. We all know they are out there; on both sides of the issue (although the maskers are clearly more numerous than the unmaskers). As Christians, we should not seek to shame or defeat those who live and act differently. Always assume good intentions from your neighbors and treat them with respect.

If you are a masker, then understand that others may have a different take on the effectiveness of masks and that issues are rarely so black and white as to warrant a lecture. Also understand that there are those for whom masks are problematic; those with respiratory issues, like asthmatics; those with skin conditions; those with mental health issues like claustrophobia. True, this makes up a small percentage of people, but it is not a percentage of people that you can identify by looking at them; so, don’t judge.

If you are an unmasker, then don’t assume someone is weak or feckless or kowtowing to the man because they choose to wear a mask. Assume their sincerity and treat them accordingly. Also, don’t assume that they are “living in fear” that is itself weakness. It is a fearful disease and a deadly one. They may have every rational reason to be fearful and they may be in a vulnerable demographic that is also not evident by looking at them. So, give them your respect and if necessary, your distance. Also, if you think wearing a mask is a good idea, don’t change your mind just because some government official thinks so as well, make up your own mind. In the end the Golden Rule applies just as much, if not more in a time of crisis.

If you are skeptical of the effectiveness of masks (as I am), then you will have to make some decisions for yourself based on your values. You have every obligation to respect the wishes of private property owners to require a mask on their premises, honor that requirement. Certainly, do not take it out on a clerk or greeter who is doing what is required of them by their employer. Also, if you are in a mandated mask jurisdiction, don’t take your frustration out on an employee operating under penalty of law. You don’t harangue a liquor store clerk for demanding your ID, do you? Take it up with your elected officials.

We will all likely have to make these tradeoff decisions. If I am able to see my mother in her retirement community only by wearing a mask, then I will wear one, that is a tradeoff that is valuable to me. If I have to wear a mask to attend worship, when church reopens, then I will. I initially thought I would not because I refused “to hide myself from the Lord” but then I realized that I cannot hide from Him anyway, so what’s the difference. Again, that is a tradeoff that I am willing to make. You make your own.

As always, live and let live, but demand of the government that same standard. Do not fall for the argument that we all have to “behave”, or we will never get out of timeout. We should not have to start doing, what we don’t voluntarily wish to do in order to get the government to stop doing to us what they never should have done in the first place. Demanding that we all freely and cooperatively interact, free of draconian government destruction of our social fabric is the best a Gospel people can offer the world right now.

Praise Be to God

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