LA’s mask tenure doesn’t make sense in a post-vaccine world
Los Angeles County has announced that it is reinstating its indoor mask mandate for all people, vaccinated or not, starting on Saturday.
The justification for mask warrants was stronger in the pre-vaccination world than in the post-vaccination world. The idea was that no one 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 pass it on to unsuspecting people by talking or breathing. Therefore, demand that everyone wear a mask, even if most people do not have the virus, as there is no way of knowing who might be spreading it.
The argument was based on two reasonable ideas. The first is that of negative externalities. People acting in their own interests could unintentionally harm others by spreading the virus. Thus, 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 much 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.
Looking back, we can debate the real effectiveness of mask warrants and everything in between. But back then, justification passed the scent of reason test, and the vast majority of Americans complied.
Now, however, with the existence of effective vaccines, this rationale for mask mandates is collapsing.
We know that the vaccines used in the United States are very effective. We know that vaccinated people almost never contract COVID-19, and if they do, they don’t get sick enough to require hospitalization and are unlikely to die. We know that vaccines are effective against the variants. When it comes to vaccine side effects, take a look around. Jim Geraghty put it right a few days ago: “Over 159 million Americans are fully vaccinated, over 184 million Americans have at least one injection. No one grows a third eyeball.
Vaccines solve the problems masked by mandates created to mitigate. The negative externalities argument disappears because vaccination is a freely available individual defense against the potential costs of other people’s behavior. People who do not get the vaccine are at risk of infection, and those who are vaccinated are not affected by their decision. The precautionary principle argument has vanished as the uncertainty over how to stop the spread of the virus has vanished. The solution is vaccines, and we know it.
Vaccines have been available free to all U.S. adults since mid-April (and we know the risk the virus poses to children is extremely low). If people haven’t been vaccinated yet, that’s their decision. They know they have a chance of catching the virus, and that’s fine with them. Vaccines allow for an individualized approach to virus attenuation that was not possible before their invention. Society-wide measures like mask warrants are vestiges of the pre-vaccination period, when we knew less and were truly defenseless against an easily transmitted virus. These conditions no longer hold, thank God.