There’s “more and more talk” these days about “wearing masks outdoors,” ABC News host George Stephanopoulos observed during a Sunday interview with the ubiquitous Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Indeed, from Stephanopoulos’s perspective, “talk” questioning the value of masking outdoors is positively everywhere now.
He’s reading about it in Slate. On April 17, contributor Shannon Palus confessed that outdoor masking “has felt a little unnecessary” for some time, even as she pledged copious fealty to the utility of masking “(and even shaming)” to control the spread of COVID-19.
He’s reading about it in the Atlantic. Staff writer Derek Thompson published a widely read item on April 19 questioning the logic of imposing mask mandates on people in settings with maximum ventilation that are bathed in UV light while letting them off the hook as long as they’re seated at a dining table.
He’s reading about it in the New York Times. On April 22, the paper published two dispatches on the subject. The first explored the matter academically and concluded that masking outdoors while being drenched in sunlight and six feet from your nearest neighbor was excessive. The second item, an opinion article authored by David Leonhardt, analyzed the first, echoed its findings, and concluded that maximum risk avoidance is neither feasible nor desirable.
If you’re a diligent consumer of elite opinion, you might feel like the bedrock consensus of the pandemic is shifting beneath your feet. And perhaps it was the sense that the emerging conventional wisdom had passed him by that led Dr. Fauci to endorse it. “I think it’s pretty common sense now that outdoor risk is really, really quite low,” Fauci said. “If you’re a vaccinated person wearing a mask outdoors, I mean, obviously, the risk is minuscule.”
Fauci added that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is a data-centric agency, which is why it can be somewhat lethargic. “They don’t want to make any guidelines unless they look at the data and the data backs it up,” he continued. “But when you look at the common-sense situation, obviously the risk is very, very low.”
That is a remarkable statement given its source. The doctor has privileged data derived from evaluations in more clinical settings, and he has reliably argued against predicating public policy on anecdotal observations—what some might describe as “common sense.” But with conventional wisdom on outdoor masking now just barely visible on the horizon, officials are ready to play catchup. And lo, within 24 hours of this interview, NBC News reported that President Joe Biden is “expected to announce new CDC guidance” regarding outdoor masking as soon as Tuesday.
The “common sense” informing this public policy was observable to anyone with a proper mistrust of overcautious technocratic governance for quite some time. It’s well and good that public policy is finally keeping pace with consensus within the “Neanderthal” class, even if that is belated. But a little introspection from those within this closed loop is overdue. After all, this isn’t an isolated episode.
On April 5, the CDC finally revised its COVID guidance to reflect the fact that the disease transmits primarily via the air, and the risk of transmission via surfaces is negligible. What’s more, obsessively disinfecting every surface you’re likely to come into contact with may do more harm than good, as the caustic chemicals in household cleaners can be harmful in excess quantities.
Again, this is a welcome narrowing of the guidelines. But it was preceded by several months of conventional and scientific wisdom, which long ago led informed observers to arrive at the CDC’s dilatory conclusion.
As early as May 2020, the CDC was beginning to echo the scientific consensus that this disease spreads person-to-person far more than it does via contaminated surfaces. To his credit, the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson followed that data and arrived at the conclusion that “hygiene theater” was a waste of energy shortly thereafter.
By October of last year, Fauci had caught on as well. Don’t worry about your grocery bag, he advised. Just wash your hands. “If you look at the transmissibility, the epidemiology that we have a lot of experience with now, that is very likely a very, very minor, minor aspect of transmissibility,” the doctor said. “We can’t say it’s zero, it certainly is real and is finite, but it’s minus.”
But the guidance around surface cleaning remained unchanged until it prompted a minor backlash among opinion-makers and trend-setters.
“It’s important to clean surfaces, but not to obsess about it too much in a way that can be unhealthy,” one CDC official told the Associated Press in November 2020. The guidance that led people to wear latex gloves to the grocery store and scrub down their cans and boxes with Clorox wipes (presuming you could find any) was “overkill,” one expert said in a sit down with NPR last December. Though it isn’t effective, “it’s easier to clean surfaces than improve ventilation—especially in the winter—and consumers have come to expect disinfection protocols,” the journal Nature reported in January to explain the public sector’s adherence to outmoded cleaning conventions. By February, Derek Thompson was practically tearing his hair out. “If hygiene theater were actual theater, it would exist in the genre of catastrophic improv,” he wrote.
Ultimately, elite consensus has come around to acknowledging the validity of the views expressed by skeptics of excessive remediation protocols both outside and within the scientific community—a satisfying yet largely uncredited victory.
What other lessons might we learn from the CDC’s sluggishness? What curves might we get ahead of with the understanding that consensus around “common sense” measures congeals at glacial speeds?
Well, last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared to agree with the notion that enforced masking for people who are fully immunized “defeats the incentive” to get vaccinated. “This is something that as we get more information, it’s going to be pulling back so you don’t have to,” he said of making mandates for the inoculated population. That, too, is “common sense” given that the number of “breakthrough” infections among the fully vaccinated are well below what we should expect even from their respective clinical trials. And as the demand for vaccinations declines and heaping scorn on holdouts from great moral heights yields diminishing returns, unmasking as a social incentive for vaccination is going to become an attractive proposition.
Among a certain class, advocating a great unmasking for the vaccinated population will still mark you as a troglodyte. And you will get no credit for prescience when those of professional peerage convince themselves they arrived at your conclusion all on their own, informed only by the most studious and empirical science. But at least they made it at all. Maybe the best you can do is roll out the welcome mat.