The Great Face Mask Debate

a football referee wearing a COVID-19 face mask, giving the hand gesture indicating a face mask penalty

a football referee wearing a COVID-19 face mask, giving the hand gesture indicating a face mask penalty

Sports fans know that the most egregious sin a football player can commit is a face mask violation, which carries with it a substantial penalty, and with good reason. Face masks are required in football because they help to protect the players, and grabbing a man’s face mask can result in serious injury, even death. Over the past several months, face masks of a different kind are helping to protect us against the spread of COVID-19, and those who refuse to wear them, put themselves and others at risk. Or do they?

Last week, Governor Roy Cooper said he was considering making everyone wear a face mask. Meanwhile those opposed to such government regulations were busy burning their face masks in protest. Clearly, Cooper can enact a mandatory face mask law, but, unlike in football, he cannot dispatch referees to every corner of the state to enforce his rule. And so, the debate over face masks rages on, and includes such points of contention as: Do masks really prevent the spread of COVID-19? If so, to what degree? Who really needs to wear a mask? Can businesses require customers to wear face masks? And, does government have the power to require all citizens to wear masks? Let’s begin with conflicting arguments from health care professionals.

The Centers for Disease Control is crystal clear on this matter: the agency advises all Americans to wear face masks. According to The Daily Mail, the CDC even went so far as to advise people who couldn’t find a face mask, to make their own device, or else wear a scarf “when travelling on public transport or in supermarkets.” Why? Because wearing a mask keeps respiratory droplets from getting airborne. Sans mask, the CDC says those droplets can take flight whenever someone talks, coughs, or sneezes. Speaking with the Winston-Salem Journal, Dr. Christopher Ohl, an infectious disease expert at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, says that masks reduce the infection rate by more than half. “Masks work,” said Ohl. “The aspect that there’s more harm than good from a mask just isn’t there.”

But not everyone agrees that masks are the best way to keep the pandemic under control. The World Health Organization, for example, still does not recommend mandatory wearing of face masks because they say there is no definitive proof that masks prevent infection. Even the Mayo Clinic, which supports the wearing of face masks, advises that there are exceptions to the rule. For example, a person with breathing problems should not wear a mask, and neither should a child under the age of 2. On the flip side, even most opponents of face mask mandates agree that PPEs are necessary for those who work in nursing homes and doctor’s offices.

In general, though, anti-maskers say that so long as we keep our social distance from others and wash our hands frequently, then it is almost impossible for the virus to spread. That argument seems to be falling on deaf ears. The city of Raleigh has recently ordered the mandatory wearing of face masks, UNCG just announced a similar policy last week, and Governor Cooper may enact a statewide mandate at any moment. Meanwhile, folks who oppose mandatory face masks might have more to protest than just a gubernatorial order. Last week, one major airline said that any passenger caught not wearing a mask, would be banned from all future flights. If that trend catches on, then watch for other industries to follow suit, and consumer groups to mount all sorts of legal challenges.

Despite the vitriol surrounding face masks, we’re all trying to find our way toward a new normal, and it doesn’t help that we keep getting mixed messages from the WHO, the CDC, the White House, the State House, and the private sector. And don’t look for a consistent message from local elected officials either. Walk into most any meeting of a county board or city council, and you’ll see some members wearing face masks and others without them. What we need, then, are some designated referees who all agree on the rules, and can help us follow them. No one wants to be penalized for not knowing what the penalties are.


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