The evidence and arguments informing the lifting of DC’s mask mandate

Yesterday, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that that the city will be lifting its mask mandate, saying:

Instead of following a blanket mandate, residents, visitors, and workers will be advised to follow risk-based guidance from DC Health that accounts for current health metrics and a person’s vaccination status.

Bowser’s guidance adds that masks may still be required in some places like public transportation and schools, and that private businesses can still implement mask requirements if they so desire.

To this news, I largely say: good! The District is averaging just 13 new cases per 100,000 each day, which is the 9th-lowest rate of any state (with neighboring Maryland and Virginia close behind). Since the delta variant peaked back in September, our case count has been on an inexorable decline. Moreover, fully 78% of Washingtonians have received at least one shot, and two-thirds have received both, putting us in the top 10 of states nationwide on both counts (again, with Maryland and Virginia following closely behind).

Despite this, there have been a lot of locals — many of whom I’m sure believe they are “following the science” — criticizing this decision. This is perhaps somewhat predictable, but it makes me wonder what their long-term answer is for living with COVID. Because it should be clear by now we aren’t going to convince/force enough people to get vaccinated to reach herd immunity. In fact, just last week, the CDC said that their goal with this pandemic is no longer achieving herd immunity, a tacit acknowledgement that they believe we will be living with the coronavirus for a long time. So, are we going to continue requiring everyone to mask…forever? At what point will critics of this decision be okay with dropping mask mandates when the evidence supports it?

Masks are obviously highly effective, as several studies have shown. Because of that, it’s hard to begrudge anyone who feels that it is the right decision for them to continue wearing one for as long as they see fit. But it’s also important to acknowledge that the vaccines are effective too! They were highly successful against the original strain of the virus, and even with the delta variant — which now appears to be receding — they are still more effective than the flu shot and basically ensure that if you do contract COVID, you are less likely to end up hospitalized or dead. (We now also have available booster shots and the new Merck pill, the latter of which would nearly end all COVID-related deaths.)

This is all miraculous and a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of our nation’s scientists. By contrast, the efficacy of the flu vaccine is around 50–60%. Some years the flu can be especially deadly. But we have not reoriented our entire lives around that fact. Rather, we’ve (hopefully) gotten vaccinated and then gone about our days.

So, why the difference between people’s reactions to the coronavirus/COVID-19 and other viruses? I’m afraid the answer is that a lot of what we’re seeing regarding masks — though I’ll be careful not to ascribe this as the only factor — is virtue signaling. Masks have become a primary dividing line in American society, helping people stake out which side of the political and cultural divide they’re on. Many either perceive themselves as belonging to the enlightened, “we believe in science” side or the independent-thinking, “we aren’t sheep” side. This is why I think DC, an overwhelmingly liberal city, is having such a hard time coming to terms with Bowser’s decision (and, notably, why there’s such resistance in conservative areas to mask mandates). The thinking here seems to be, “The Trump people and anti-vaxxers are on the anti-mask side, so why would we do anything to associate ourselves with that?” But science doesn’t have a political or ideological bent. It is a process that helps us understand the world, even if that is in ways that conflict with our current understanding of it.

What’s obvious to many is that we could have avoided getting to this point altogether. The vaccines were our ticket out of the pandemic. Of course, some people were never going to get poked, and their refusal to do that is a primary reason why the virus is still with us today. Moreover, disinformation about the vaccine’s side effects surely had a role in fostering some of that skepticism. But vaccines were also supposed to be a sign to many skeptics that life would return to normal, and yet, what they mostly saw was continued lockdowns and mask mandates. This would reasonably raise the question, “Wait, so are the vaccines not effective then? Why would I bother getting one if nothing changes?”

Continuing mask mandates when your community has high vaccination rates is arguably not supported by “the science.” There is no reason why cities and states can’t simply adopt rules that say you must be vaccinated to enter a certain space and then allow those who gain admittance to shed their masks. In fact, many businesses in major cities are already doing part one of that equation, but then why keep mask requirements on top of that? We know that vaccinated individuals are far less likely to spread the virus if they contract it, especially to others who are also vaccinated. I experienced this personally when I had a COVID breakthrough case over the summer. Health experts told people whom I had possibly exposed that they didn’t even need to get tested unless they started exhibiting symptoms.

Having said all this, if certain businesses want to keep mask mandates in place or if individuals choose to keep wearing them, they are of course well within their right to do that. I’d also add that if cases start ticking back up over the holidays/winter season or if a new, highly contagious variant arrives on our shores, then it might make sense for cities to then consider reinstating these mandates. But public policy should follow the science and the evidence, not just be ham-fisted for the sake of making people feel safer, the way that so many TSA regulations reshaped American society after 9/11 (and many of which are still with us today, despite any evidence that they actually make us safer).

It is increasingly going to be incumbent on more small-C conservative folks to make the case for why more, longer-lasting public restrictions are required at any given time. If things start to get worse, they’ll have more evidence to support their position. But as things cool off, it should be perfectly okay for us to stop demanding that everyone make the same choices.

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Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.

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Michael Baharaeen

Michael Baharaeen

Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.

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