Arguments over masks aren't going away in 2023

Commuters wearing masks at a subway station in New York City.
Commuters at the Times Square-42nd Street subway station in New York City. (Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON — On a recent evening, comedian Jimmy Fallon devoted a segment of his late night talk show to launch into one of his ready-made-for-social-media ditties, this one devoted to the new XBB.1.5 variant of the coronavirus. Rendered in the campy style of the B-52s, the joking song contained a line many public health officials would like to see elected officials make with deliberate seriousness.

“Put on your mask when inside a facility,” Fallon crooned.

Three years into the pandemic, the question of whether to mask or not to mask shows no signs of heading toward a resolution, especially during a winter season that has seen a so-called tripledemic sweep across the United States. States dropped their mask mandates long ago; last spring, a court struck down a mask mandate on airplanes, planes and other forms of transit. Today, masking is still required in some institutions, like hospitals and theaters.

But for the most part, masking has become purely a matter of choice.

Ashish Jha, White House COVID-19 response coordinator stands at a podium labeled: The White House, Washington and stands next to a poster labeled: President Biden's winter COVID-19 preparedness plan.

Not even the appearance of XBB.1.5 has spurred a shift toward mandates. Some school districts in Michigan and Massachusetts required students to mask after they returned from the winter holiday break, but those mandates remain very much the exception, not the rule. So far, no major city has reimposed a mask mandate. Even the governors of the bluest states would rather talk about inflation than the pandemic, so gruelingly divisive has that topic become.

Still, the virus persists. The emergence of XBB.1.5 is especially concerning because this newest Omicron subvariant is so transmissible. And it arrived in the United States as winter set in, when people are much more likely to gather indoors.

“COVID is the thing that concerns us most as we look to the days and weeks ahead,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House pandemic response team coordinator, told NPR earlier this month.

For public health officials concerned with a new winter spike, masking is an obvious solution to a recurrent problem. “When it comes to individual decisions, masks are among the most low-cost and most effective steps that can be taken to broadly reduce transmission of a multitude of viruses,” University of Michigan epidemiologists Emily Toth Martin and Marisa Eisenberg argued in a recent op-ed.

Pedestrians, one of whom wears a face mask, walk by a COVID-19 testing site on a sidewalk.
New York City's health officials issued an advisory in December urging New Yorkers to use masks as COVID-19, flu and RSV cases rose. (Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Some believe that masks should not be a matter of personal choice, pointing to evidence that masking is most effective when it is practiced by everyone. A recently formed activist group called the People’s CDC — its very title is an implicit criticism of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has called for mask mandates to be implemented in schools and other institutions.

“The pandemic isn't over — and it's not going to be over for any of us until it's over for all of us,” People’s CDC member Dr. Zoey Thill, a New York physician, told Yahoo News. “We are only going to get through this pandemic with a collective approach.”

She and other masking advocates believe that Americans’ resistance to masking has been overstated and that, more broadly, too many Democrats have forsaken aggressive mitigation measures because of political concerns, not public health realities.

The White House recently announced it was making coronavirus diagnostic tests available for free again. But officials like Jha who work on the pandemic have ceased to emphasize masking as a matter of course, the way they did in 2020 and early 2021. Incentives for vaccination disappeared long ago, and many Americans who received their initial inoculations decided against booster shots that were updated to fight new variants of the coronavirus.

A medical worker, wearing a black face mask and blue rubber gloves, administers an injection into the upper arm of someone whose back is to the camera.
A medical worker administers a dose of flu vaccine at a medical center in Rosemead, Calif. (Xinhua via Getty Images)

To some, all this is merely society returning to normal. To others, it’s surrender.

“People don’t want to be dealing with this pandemic forever,” Thill acknowledged in a telephone interview. But she argued that unless measures like universal masking, improved ventilation and paid leave for sick workers were implemented, the coronavirus would continue to spread, giving rise to new variants and delaying the pandemic’s end.

Even though many Americans continue to support masking, the resistance to mask mandates has become a political movement of its own. “Mask mandates were brazenly wrong 3 years ago and they’re wrong today,” tweeted Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in response to the new school mandates. He and other Republicans have used disagreements over masking to launch culture war attacks that have galvanized the conservative base.

Sen. Ted Cruz holds a microphone to his pursed lips.
Sen. Ted Cruz at the Republican Jewish Coalition on Nov. 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Politics aside, even some medical professionals believe that the efficacy of masking was overstated to begin with. “Masks certainly can work on an individual level to reduce viral transmission (i.e. infecting another person), but only if the mask is well-fitted, high-grade, and worn consistently,” Dr. Lucy McBride, a physician in Washington, D.C., wrote in a recent newsletter.

“In the real world, these conditions aren’t readily met — which explains why the real-world population data on mask effectiveness is weak.”

Even Jha, the White House coordinator, has become something of a mask skeptic. “There is no study in the world that shows that masks work that well,” he said in December, in a comment that cheered some and dismayed others. (The White House notes, correctly, that it has no power to impose mask mandates, though the bully pulpit of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue comes with no small amount of suasion.)

Washington physician McBride is one of the founders of Urgency of Normal, a group started last year to advocate for doing away with pandemic restrictions. Last week, Urgency of Normal called for an end to all school mask mandates across the country. In an open letter, the organization argued that “continued pandemic mitigation measures like mask mandates are not justified for respiratory viruses. It is in children’s best interests to normalize the daily school experience and put an end to unnecessary and harmful restrictions.”

Protesters stand on the side of a road holding signs reading: Let them breathe and What's the point of the Statue of Liberty if we have no liberty?
Let Them Breathe, an anti-mask group, protests in Redondo Beach, Calif., in July 2021. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Urgency of Normal has plenty of detractors, who say its arguments cater to wealthier, whiter communities that benefit from high-quality health care and the ability to work from home. The People’s CDC has an information tool kit titled “The Urgency of Equity,” which serves both as an obvious allusion and a counterargument.

So far, though, the imperative for normalcy seems to be winning out over pandemic worries in many parts of the country, frustrating advocates who believe that individualized approaches to the pandemic are bound to fail.

“We all need to do our own part to minimize risk for everyone,” Thill said. “It’s only until we do that that we’re going to get through this."