The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Writers in the Washington Post and the New York Times now agree with many other sources that masks may be useful in combatting COVID-19, perhaps because masks reduce the probability that the wearer will infect others or, at least by discouraging touching of the face, the probability that someone else will infect the wearer.
At this point, we don't know for sure how well masks work, and there is a danger that masks could provide a false sense of security. If masks in fact greatly reduce transmission, however, then mask mandates will likely be part of the solution. A mask mandate is a much lesser intrusion on liberty than stay-at-home orders.
Surgical masks are not yet widely available, but apparently even DIY masks have some utility, allegedly helping to explain why the Czech Republic has modestly flattened the curve. The CDC could help at this point by encouraging everyone who must be in public or at work to wear at least a DIY mask, while still warning that the measure is not a replacement for social distancing. That might help people get used to the idea. More broadly, the government could help by focusing on mask production. For example, the federal government could promise to buy billions of surgical masks in the event manufacturers are unable to find buyers; the worst case scenario is that the national stockpile is replenished for the next pandemic.
In the longer term, more analysis would be helpful. Perhaps we'll learn more as some countries, states, and municipalities adopt mask mandates, or as masks become more popular in some areas than other. Some form of random experimentation would be especially helpful. For example, once health care providers have enough surgical masks for themselves, the government could distribute masks in randomly selected municipalities and compare growth of COVID-19 infection rates.