The plague masks won’t save us

End the mask mandate and make it easier to get tested for COVID-19

Image | Bicanski

Will we ever give up on outdated rules, or are we stuck with “mask before you go” guidance through 2035?

How quickly we forget the promise that getting vaccinated meant no more masks. Even though 75% of adults in Philadelphia are fully vaccinated, and 93% are partially vaccinated as of November 30, according to the Department of Public Health, the mask mandate is here to stay.

It’s time to end the mask mandate already.

The city needs to focus on making it easy to get tested for COVID-19 and encourage the middle-aged and elderly who remain unvaccinated to get the vaccine. The hypochondriac impulse to cling to masks gives people a false sense of security; if cases spike in the future, people need habits that actually stop the spread of COVID-19, which means getting tested, not masks.

The mask mandate is a farce. Everyone in the city knows it’s a farce because grocery stores ask you to wear one for a 10-minute trip, but sitting in a cafe or restaurant for 2 hours maskless provokes no reprimand. Nor is there a push for people to wear the more-effective N-95 masks instead of cloth masks. We have a highly effective vaccine; we should embrace its liberating qualities. It’s okay to examine the scientific evidence on mask mandates and admit that they don’t do much. As Jeffrey H. Anderson concluded in an August article for City Journal, “Americans’ many months of mask-wearing has likely provided little to no health benefit and might even have been counterproductive in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus.”

Some people may get a psychological comfort in seeing others wearing a mask, but the city government has no business lying to its residents so they’ll feel safer than they actually are. Just as sanitizing surfaces and erecting plastic barriers (as The New York Times finally noted) are useless or sometimes counterproductive, we need to actually follow the evidence and reject the siren song of “it’s better to be cautious, just in case.” Otherwise, bad policies won’t go away.

When health becomes the end-all argument in politics, there’s no limiting principle. Everything must, and will, be sacrificed for it. It’s one thing to shut down the city for two weeks at the beginning of an unknown pandemic; it’s another to pretend we’re still living under the threat of death when we know much more and have an extraordinarily effective vaccine.

Of the 773,812 Americans who have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, 93% were age 50 or older, according to the CDC. Fewer than 5,000 people 18-29 have died, and 621 children. Yet we are still forcing children in the School District of Philadelphia to mask and colleges remain strict about mask and vaccine mandates, despite the extremely low risk of students getting a severe case of COVID-19.

Life could return to normal, if only the high-anxiety caucus of local and national politics weren’t in charge.

Philadelphia could follow the lead of New York City, which has free test sites set up across its five boroughs and offers in-home testing for immunocompromised and elderly residents. Philly could do one better than New York and end the mask mandate, as a way to acknowledge that masks won’t stop a pandemic, but testing and detecting COVID-19 will.

    • Anthony Hennen

      Anthony Hennen is executive editor of Philadelphia Weekly. He is managing editor of expatalachians, a journalism project focused on the Appalachian region. Previously, he was managing editor at the James G. Martin Center, a higher ed think tank in Raleigh, North Carolina. Anthony grew up on the Ohio/West Virginia border. @anthonyhennen.

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