THIS SUMMER and into early fall several municipalities passed or considered mandates that people wear masks when in public. These mandates have broad public support. A Boston Globe/Suffolk University poll taken in the second week of October found that only 25 percent of Granite Staters said the state or local government shouldn’t impose mask mandates.
But are mask mandates the right call? Assuming masks are effective (many studies suggest they are), when is a mask mandate an appropriate government action?
Portsmouth’s City Council approved a mask mandate on a 7-2 vote in September. The city had fewer than five known active coronavirus infections the day the ordinance passed, meaning more councilors voted for the ordinance than there were active cases in the city, NH Journal pointed out.
Manchester aldermen are considering a mandate that would carry a $1,000 fine. City Health Department Director Anna Thomas told aldermen the point of the ordinance would be to educate the public about the importance of wearing masks.
No, the purpose of a public relations campaign is to educate. The purpose of a mandate is to force compliance. And the purpose of a fine is to punish.
Manchester Community College charges only $215 per credit. For $1,000, you could take a course in the Health Sciences curriculum, say, Probability & Statistics, learn more about the value of mask wearing, and still have $140 left over.
In August, Hanover, Lebanon and Enfield passed mask mandates, as did Durham, despite having few recorded infections. Nashua, the first N.H. municipality to pass a mandate, in September updated it to require that businesses refuse to serve customers who aren’t wearing masks.
The new language forces employees to confront customers, even if no one else is in the business, and even if the employee is a teenager who might not have the training or confidence to engage in such a confrontation.
After months of declining infections, hospitalizations and deaths, the urge to impose mandates on the population grew rather than shrank. Municipalities pushed forward with new or expanded mandates even when presented with evidence that the large majority of people already wear masks.
Nationally, 85% of Americans say they regularly wear masks when in stores or other businesses. A walk in downtown Manchester or a trip to any area supermarket is evidence that most people already wear masks when outside the house.
The new municipal mandates typically require that masks be worn within six feet of someone else. Yet the World Health Organization recommends maintaining one meter (three feet) of distance. The British Medical Journal has suggested basing distancing on level of risk, with outdoor, less congested places needing smaller distance requirements. But municipalities are acting as if six feet of separation is an unbreakable law of science. It isn’t.
Mandates are blunt instruments that don’t allow for nuance or for in-the-moment decision-making. They preclude people from using their own judgment.
And so we have Granite Staters being subject to fines for not maintaining twice the WHO’s recommended distance, even when outside in non-congested spaces where the risk of spread is low.
Only one case of COVID-19 has been linked to Bike Week, and not a single case has been linked to any large, outdoor gathering, including two Trump rallies and a NASCAR race. Multiple Black Lives Matter protests did not cause an infection surge in New Hampshire. But the public is supposed to believe that two individuals passing on a sidewalk within five feet, 11 inches of each other is a public health emergency?
The CDC has attributed the recent rise in infections to small, private gatherings in which people are letting down their guard.
From the start, the Josiah Bartlett Center recommended voluntary mask wearing and a state public relations campaign to encourage it. Mandates, however, are not the same as education. Education informs, but does not compel.
A mandate is an extraordinary measure to be reserved for the most extraordinary emergencies. New Hampshire’s infection rate remains well below 1 percent, its hospital capacity high, its voluntary mask wearing common. Even if mask mandates are comforting, it’s hard to make the case that they’re necessary to protect public health at this time.
And that — necessity — is the determining factor. The coercive power of government is not a tool with which to fine-tune people’s sensibilities. It is a last resort to be deployed when all other options are exhausted and the consequences of inaction are most dire.