Public officials in Los Angeles and Seattle are reportedly mulling a return to mask mandates as COVID-19 case numbers surge and hospitalization rates creep upward.
Hospitalizations now exceed 10 per 100,000 residents in Los Angeles County, the threshold where indoor masking in public spaces becomes mandatory under the county's pandemic mitigation plans. If the county remains above that rate of hospitalizations for the next two weeks, the mask mandate would automatically take effect on July 29, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday.
In Washington state, meanwhile, officials in King County (which includes Seattle) are having "active discussions" about a new mask mandate as COVID hospitalizations climb, according to local TV station Fox 13.
In both places, officials are pointing to the highly transmissible new subvariants of the omicron variant of COVID. Those subvariants—BA. 4 and BA. 5—are now the dominant strains of the virus circulating in the U.S., but they seem to cause less severe illness and fewer hospitalizations than their predecessors.
So why are some places with high vaccination rates returning to mask mandates? Good question.
Wearing masks might provide some marginal protection against COVID infection, but even that's pretty debatable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admitted in January that nonsurgical masks provide little protection. "Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations," is how CNN medical analyst Leana Wen described them in December 2021. Fitted surgical masks and N95 masks provide better defense but are cumbersome to wear on a regular basis, as even CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has conceded.
There's less debate about the effectiveness of mask mandates, which are mostly about virtue signaling and don't seem to accomplish much—other than usefully demonstrating the hypocrisy of public officials caught flouting their own masking orders. "We do not find evidence that mandating mask-wearing reduces transmission," a group of Yale University researchers reported in June of last year. "Our results suggest that mask-wearing is strongly affected by factors other than mandates."
During last fall's surge in COVID cases, the "states with mask mandates haven't fared significantly better than the 35 states that didn't impose them," science journalist Faye Flam wrote in a Bloomberg Opinion essay. "There's little evidence that mask mandates are the primary reason the pandemic waves eventually fall—though much of the outrage over lifting mandates is based on that assumption."
Indeed, it's fairly obvious that nearly everyone long ago made up their mind about if (and under what circumstances) they'd be willing to wear a mask. You'll still see some people masked up while walking outside by themselves, while others will only wear a mask during prolonged face-to-face contact indoors, and most have ditched them altogether.
So bring back the mask mandates. Or don't. It probably won't make one bit of difference in how America weathers the next wave of COVID—it will only pointlessly annoy a lot of people living in certain cities. Wearing a mask is a personal choice at this point—and no mandate will change that reality.