Backsliding Into Mask Mandates
The CDC brings 2020 pandemic policies in a vaccinated 2021.
The CDC wants us to go back to wearing masks indoors, even if you’ve been vaccinated. This is where I get off.
If you’ll forgive a little testifying, I’ve tried hard to be reasonable throughout the pandemic. I’ve bent over backward to give public officials the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. This pandemic was a once-in-a-century calamity, and there was neither the living memory nor a readily available political playbook for how to handle it.
I didn’t lose my temper when health officials admitted they lied about the need for masks in order to protect the supply for health-care workers. Though I did lose my temper when some public health experts said that mass gatherings needed to be banned—unless you were protesting for racial justice.
But I held off condemning New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s grave errors too harshly—chief among them, disastrously sending COVID-19 patients back to nursing homes—until it was revealed he lied about what he knew to protect his book sales and political ambitions.
I took the middle position on masks, criticizing extremists on both sides who tried to paint them as tyrannical impositions or symbols of moral superiority.
However, I was always pro-vaccine, which is why, despite my negative views of the Trump presidency, I always gave him ample credit for Operation Warp Speed, which brought miraculous vaccines online in record time.
So, with my self-indulgent celebration of my own reasonableness out of the way, I’m here to say that I’m done.
In a world without a vaccine, mask-wearing made sense. Even some of the lockdowns were justifiable for a while, not because the data supported all of them, but because there wasn’t any data available yet, and policymakers have an obligation to err on the side of saving lives.
Up to a point.
Yes, if you’ve been vaccinated, you can still die from COVID-19, but the odds are infinitesimally small. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Marc Thiessen recently demonstrated in the Washington Post, if you’ve been vaccinated, you’re more likely to die from a lightning strike than from the virus.
But the CDC isn’t recommending mask-wearing to protect the vaccinated. It claims, without providing supporting data, that the vaccinated need to wear masks to protect the unvaccinated from the new delta variant.
Let’s assume the CDC actually has the data to support its policy. There are three primary arguments to require the vaccinated to mask up.
First, we need to protect unvaccinated adults, who account for nearly all COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. There would be a good case for this if vaccines weren’t readily available. But they are. At this point, if you choose not to get vaccinated (without a medical excuse), I think that’s profoundly foolish, but that’s your choice.
Second, there’s the matter of children under 12 who still can’t get the vaccine. My heart aches for any child who dies from COVID-19—or anything else. Fortunately, the death rate for children is statistically miniscule. According to the CDC, of the more than 600,000 deaths from COVID-19, only 335 have been kids under 18 (and it’s unclear how many of them had significant additional health issues). According to the CDC, roughly twice as many kids die in car accidents every year. We don’t ban kids from cars.
The third argument, usually only hinted at, is that we need to keep COVID-19 from mutating into an even more dangerous variant that can defeat vaccines. This is a real concern. But masking and even lockdowns won’t prevent that. As best we can tell, the delta variant came from India. We could require Americans to wear masks and even get vaccinated, but that wouldn’t stop the virus from mutating somewhere else. And unless we want to ban global travel indefinitely, or until we vaccinate much of the planet (which we should do), we have to live with that possibility.
Meanwhile, there are real costs to backsliding back into masking and, heaven forbid, school closures, lockdowns, etc.—which some people are already agitating for. This stuff is terrible for kids, infuriating for adults, and (rational or not) profoundly disruptive of social peace and trust. The chief incentive for getting vaccinated—after protecting yourself and your loved ones—is the promise of getting back to normal.
Public health officials, who often do a terrible job of concealing how much they love driving public policy, are taking us in the wrong direction. We shouldn’t blithely follow them.