The real problem, according to this view, is that the United States has done too little to protect people from Covid; if exaggerating the individual risk can reduce the collective risk of Covid, isn’t that a good thing?
There is some logic in this line of thinking, as the United States has indeed done too little to combat Covid. But the argument rests on the assumption that nearly all Covid restrictions improve public health, and that’s not necessarily true. Almost all restrictions have both benefits and costs. The question is when do the benefits outweigh the costs?
With vaccines and boosters, the answer is clear. The benefits (a huge reduction in the risk of death, hospitalization and other symptoms) far outweigh the costs (a day or two of potentially feeling crummy). With many other mitigation strategies, however, the answer is more obscure. The disruption and isolation of the past two years have contributed to rising inequalities in education, mental health issues, blood pressure, drug overdoses, violent crime and other serious illnesses.
Masks are an intriguing tool because they allow people to be together while protecting each other. Yet a growing number of Americans are nonetheless deciding that the costs of masks often outweigh the benefits, especially in schools.
Let’s look at both the costs and benefits of school mask mandates.
The Empathy Gap
The benefits of universal masking in schools remain unclear. Studies – in Florida and England, for example – tend to find little effect on the number of cases. A study that found an effect has been largely debunked.
Some experts still favor masks in schools, saying they likely have an effect, although few studies have yet shown this. Plenty of other evidence suggests that masking is important. Until the Omicron wave ends and hospitalizations and deaths decline much more, masks should stay in place, these experts say.
Other experts think compulsory school masking is almost worthless. “It doesn’t work,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me. Among the reasons: Medical masks are designed for adults, not children, notes Osterholm. Even masks designed for children slip off their face. Children take off their masks to eat. Add to that the intense contagiousness of Omicron, and the benefits of warrants can be minimal.