There is a lot of discussion about municipal, state and even federal mask policy. Tulsa passed their mask ordinance yesterday. There are a myriad of concerns and complications to what a good policy should look like. After numerous conversations, a little research and better defining our objective, here are a series of recommendations for people to consider about masking up and the policy that should follow.
First, we need to set a few points we have to agree on because there is ample evidence to support each of these.
1) Masks are effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19.
2) There are few, if any, medical or physical reasons someone cannot wear a mask (we'll discuss the mental aspect later).
3) Government, business, and other private venues can require you to wear a mask in public like they can require clothes or shoes.
4) Complete adoption is not necessary.
From a cost/benefit analysis, masks are a no-brainer. Even if the effectiveness is limited they are cheap to make, easy to distribute, and have a lot of positive reinforcement that helps people avoid COVID spreading behaviors. The countries that have had the least impact from COVID are all big on mask wearing and have humans just like us.
The primary concerns around a mask policy, whether for schools or businesses or government, is around adoption and enforcement. We can get into weird arguments about politics and culture that are often racist, but lots of places have gone from zero masks to near 100% masks very quickly and relatively painlessly. The biggest point I'd make on this is that we should focus on education and encouragement, not punishment and shame. Mask wearing is as much an exercise in mentality as it is in having a good policy and even more so than rigid enforcement. People should be encouraged, cajoled, nudged, whatever it takes to get them to wear masks. This is also not an individual or personal responsibility thing, it is a collective thing where we all do what is necessary to achieve the common good.
Many policies are extremely complicated. They carve out exemptions, focus a lot on accountability and punishment, and often create animosity between factions by focusing attention on specific groups and then excluding others. The policy needs to be simple and supported. It should be near-universal so that everyone is sharing in both the benefit and inconvenience. Enforcement is less important than encouragement. The best initial policy I've seen in Oklahoma other than an outright mandate is Mayor David Holt's July 2nd proclamation. In it, he lines out a basic rationale and focuses clear efforts on the highest risk groups and main violators. The downsides are remembering who is affected and it could definitely go further, but it was a good start and had good underlying rationale.
Below are some recommendations for an effective, universal mask policy.
1) Mask policy should apply everywhere and to everyone.
If the state won't do it, the city should. Every person in a public space that cannot socially distance should be required to wear a mask. This will push schools, businesses and other institutions to match. It gives cover to the overwhelming majority that want to do the right thing. It clears up the subjective nature of this effort and makes it a reality like death and taxes. Individual cases can still be dealt with case by case, but for the vast majority, it is clear, simple and direct. It also helps people to not touch their face, to remember we are in a pandemic and social distance, and may even discourage folks from standing and talking too long in confined or close spaces. Carve outs and exemptions sound helpful but just make it confusing. We are seeing that cases are coming from all sorts of sources, exempting churches or random groups reduces effectiveness and breeds confusion. Universalism is clear and
2) Enforcement should be focused on businesses, institutions and others with resources and mechanisms to be held accountable.
This is the part that worked the best with Mayor Holt's proclamation. Focusing on businesses and institutions drastically reduces the number of places you have to be checking up on and increases the number of people following the policy. If you want to get groceries, wear your mask. Like health regulations or others, businesses can certainly cheat, but you run a real risk with a real consequence that is easily enforced. It also gives businesses an out by blaming the Government if a customer gets mad. I will add though that the government and others need to be holding themselves to a higher standard. If we are making grocery checkers and customers wear masks then police officers, office employees, and others definitely need to do it. I've seen and heard too many examples of people breaking the rules and their consequence could be their job. This isn't complicated.
3) Encouragement and education should be the focus of enforcement, not punishment.
We need masks everywhere. People will have lots of reasons for violating this. Most are pretty basic and easily solved. Lack of access, forgetting or losing a mask, not having enough on hand for a small crowd of people and yes, a few assholes. Fines or sending out the police (unless it is to deliver masks) will not help this be successful, encouragement and education will.
Health officials need help getting to the folks most likely to violate these requirements. We should offer to help, not punish people. Throwing a private party? Here are some masks. Holding an in-person training or meeting? Provide masks. About to get your workout on? Here's your mask. The faster we adopt this, the faster we get things under control and the sooner restrictions can be relaxed, which leads to our next point.
4) Give individuals an out.
We do not need 100% compliance. There is also the concept of diminishing returns. If a universal mask policy increases adoption from 50% to 90%, that is nearly a 100% improvement and should change the math in the fight against COVID. Assuming some 5% has a legit reason – health, mental or otherwise – how many resources should we spend on getting that last 5% of jerks? If someone is hellbent on not wearing, fine.
Most enforcement is subjective anyway, and everyone from the cops to the DA can decide whether to charge or go after someone or not. There is a lot of unfairness there but that is something the whole system needs to deal with. If the viral videos have taught us anything, the people most antagonistic about masks clearly have other issues going on. The policy should be written to survive legal challenge but apply as universally as possible, with encouragement and education being the focus rather than punishment. Our resources are better spent on the unscrupulous bar owner hosting nightly super-spreader events than going after some Chad out pumping gas into his truck nutted 4x4.
5) Set goals
Right now, there is so much mis and disinformation. Our goal seems to be trying to fill some yet to be determined percentage of our 5,000 available beds (a number that is almost certainly a lie by our Governor). The real goal should be reducing the rate of spread until it is eventually negative and the virus goes away. That is what nearly every other country has done and there is light at the end of that tunnel. When the virus isn't spreading a higher than 1 to 1 rate, it mathematically goes away. Masks improve those odds. It is a common goal for a common effort and one we can verify if we are meeting or not. It is far better than hoping things don't get out of control when invariably they do.
What do we do?
Contact your City Councilor and the Mayor here: https://www.okc.gov/government/city-council
Ask them to support a mask ordinance and feel free to use any points here that speak to you!
What if we don't?
Things are going to get very, very bad for the United States of America. The false choice of the economy or public health has decimated both. City after city that has downplayed or failed to respond to the threat has ultimately suffered staggering amounts of death, an overwhelmed hospital situation and further restrictions and shutdowns on businesses and activity. Add to this that a significant percentage of the economy has never returned from the initial shutdowns and you are talking about millions of people whose jobs are gone and there are not new ones to replace them.
There is also the practical matter of how individual selfishness negatively impacts collective outcomes. Telling vulnerable people to stay home indefinitely, in addition to being cruel, also sabotages the economy. Baby Boomers have the most purchasing power and wealth of any demographic, they are customers to millions of businesses, they are also overly represented in the high risk category. Forcing them out of the economy entirely just dooms the many jobs and businesses reliant on their patronage. If we wants sports or schools or most entertainment options to open again, we should wear masks ASAP.
The solution for this crisis is clearly not coming from the top down. It will come from the bottom up, but institutions still matter. Those closest to the people, schools, cities, businesses, churches, and others have to do their part. The federal government is not 100% bad either. Increased unemployment benefits have lowered the US poverty rate and allowed millions to stay home safely and continue to pay their bills. We should be expanding these programs, rewarding front line and essential workers and doing whatever we can to mitigate the virus. With the current group in power, that will be slow coming, but that doesn't mean we are powerless. Implementing low risk, high reward strategies will work. Coming up with more mitigation and efforts to contain or disrupt the virus, improves out odds. This is a war (for lack of a better analogy) and we've lost some big battles, but many are still standing and at any point, we can choose to turn the tide. If yesterday was the best time to start, the next best time is today. Let's get to it.