Los Angeles County has announced that it is reinstating its indoor mask mandate for all people, vaccinated or not, starting Saturday.
The justification for mask mandates was stronger in the pre-vaccine world than it is in the post-vaccine world. The idea was that nobody knew who had COVID-19, and people who were infected but asymptomatic could accidentally spread it. Even if you thought you didn’t have it, you could still spread it to unsuspecting people through talking or breathing. Therefore, require everyone to wear a mask, even though most people didn’t have the virus, because there’s no way of knowing who might be spreading it.
The argument was based on two reasonable ideas. The first is negative externalities. People acting for their own benefit could harm others unintentionally by spreading the virus. So, wearing a mask is a way to internalize the potential social costs of people’s behavior. The second is the precautionary principle. We didn’t know a lot about the virus except that it spread through the air, so wearing a mask is a reasonable precaution to take, and it wasn’t that difficult.
With hindsight, we can debate how effective the mask mandates actually were and all the rest. But at the time, the justification passed the smell test of reasonability, and the vast majority of Americans complied.
Now, however, with the existence of effective vaccines, that justification for mask mandates falls apart.
We know the vaccines used in the U.S. are highly effective. We know that people who are vaccinated hardly ever get COVID-19, and on the off chance they do, they don’t get sick enough to require hospitalization and aren’t at risk of death. We know the vaccines are effective against variants. As for vaccine side effects, just look around. Jim Geraghty put it well a few days ago: “More than 159 million Americans are fully vaccinated, more than 184 million Americans have at least one shot. Nobody’s growing a third eyeball.”
Vaccines solve the problems that mask mandates were created to mitigate. The negative externalities argument goes away because vaccination is a freely available individual defense against the potential costs of other people’s behavior. People who don’t get vaccinated are putting themselves at risk for being infected, and people who are vaccinated are unaffected by their decision. The precautionary principle argument is gone because the uncertainty about how to stop spread of the virus is gone. The solution is vaccines, and we know it.
Vaccines have been available to every American adult for free since the middle of April (and we know that the risk the virus poses to children is vanishingly small). If people have not been vaccinated yet, that’s their decision. They know they have a chance at catching the virus, and they’re fine with that. Vaccines allow for the individualized approach to virus mitigation that was impossible before they were invented. Society-wide measures like mask mandates are leftovers from the pre-vaccine period, when we knew less and were genuinely defenseless against an easily transmissible virus. Those conditions no longer hold, thank goodness.
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