Brace yourselves: Mask mandates are coming back.
The Biden administration is already preparing the public for the return of COVID-19 mitigation efforts, given concerns about the more contagious delta variant of the disease. The president is reportedly in talks with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reintroduce mask mandates and social distancing requirements—and on Wednesday, Biden said that health officials are likely to recommend masks for all kids younger than 12 when school resumes in the fall. Meanwhile, Los Angeles County has reintroduced its mask mandate. Other Democratic-controlled municipalities may follow.
It's far from clear that this will do any good. The most effective COVID-19 mitigation strategy is the vaccines, which are now widely availably to everyone 12 or older. Virtually all people in serious risk of a negative coronavirus health outcome can take a vaccine that reduces their risk of death to almost nothing. (It's not absolutely nothing, but it's close.) If public health officials are worried about delta, they should put all their efforts into vaccination.
Mask mandates, on the other hand, largely function as a form of signaling. Vaccinated people who wear masks are communicating that they take the pandemic seriously, and policy makers who insist on mask requirements are associating themselves with a specific political tribe. If you've had your COVID shots, the mask is basically Team Blue's version of the Make America Great Again hat.
If officials are more concerned with health than with partisan signals—and they should be—then the era of the mask mandate must come to and end. When vaccines were unavailable and even medical experts did not understand the circumstances under which the infected were most likely to transmit the disease, widespread mask usage was likely useful in certain indoor settings, though even then it was probably driven "by factors other than mandates." But the vaccines change the calculation. If you're a fully vaccinated adult, you don't need the mask. And if you're an unvaccinated adult, you also don't need the mask—you need to get vaccinated. (If you're a kid, COVID-19 poses very, very little risk to your health.)
Theoretically, if there are places in the country where vaccine rates are very low, people who obstinately refuse to become vaccinated might get some small benefit out of widespread mask usage. But in practice, people who don't want to get the vaccine are unlikely to follow the other, more annoying mitigation strategies. On the contrary, the places that are most likely to reintroduce mask mandates and see widespread compliance are places where vaccination rates are very high.
Vaccination should not be thought of as just one tool among many: It is the tool. The masks are an insult to this life-saving, pandemic-crushing medical innovation.