While taking what the Los Angeles Times described as a “victory lap” in March as COVID-19 cases around the country continued their steady decline, President Joe Biden warned that the pandemic’s most onerous mitigation measures may yet make a comeback. “If we don’t stay vigilant,” Biden warned, “we may have to reinstate restrictions to get back on track.” This binary—either maintaining what was at the time the surging pace of vaccinations or a return to the pandemic’s bad old days—has taken root in the minds of the public servants who govern some of the nation’s most left-leaning cities.
Amid a comparatively modest new surge of COVID infections, and without the accompanying rates of hospitalization and death that typified such deluges before the advent of COVID vaccines, Los Angeles has reimposed a city-wide indoor masking mandate without regard for individual vaccination status (a move Joe Biden’s surgeon general applauded). Las Vegas followed suit, strongly recommending the resumption of indoor mask mandates. And while outgoing New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has rejected a new mask mandate, other powerful city officials, such as the chair of the city council’s health committee, Mark Levine, are calling for a reversion to the status quo ante. But a cursory overview of how renewed mask mandates are being received in Los Angeles, as well as the application of a little common sense, suggests this strategy is doomed to failure.
The reintroduction of mask mandates in Los Angeles seems to be a welcome development only among those who are already highly educated and affluent; in other words, those who are most likely to have already been vaccinated. Surveying the landscape, the New York Times compiled a variety of anecdotes among those tasked with enforcing these mandates, and most accounts suggest the project is not being warmly received. “I’m too scared to tell people to put them on,” one art gallery staffer told the Times. “They will scream at you.” Another entirely shirked any responsibility to enforce masking at all. “I’m not the mask police,” he said. The patrons of these local establishments who spoke with Times reporters, many of whom were either vaccinated or had contracted COVID and recovered, didn’t understand what the masking mandate was intended to accomplish. The days of masking as a self-reinforcing social norm are long behind us.
And if masking is not a self-perpetuating social norm, it’s is certainly not a matter for police. Los Angeles County’s sheriff has already said he will devote no resources to enforcing the new masking ordinance. Compliance will be voluntary, he continued, adding that the city should instead pursue “mandates that are both achievable and supported by science.” Outside of LA’s poshest enclaves, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone obeying the mask mandate at all. Another Times dispatch datelined Beverly Hills outlined the “challenge of reinforcing the masking mandate” even in establishments as amenable to such interventions as “cafes, patisseries, and brunch spots.” Meanwhile, at Marci’s Sports Bar & Grill in the more conservative Santa Clarita, no one even bothered to observe the city’s burdensome new mandates, much less to police violations of the new edict.
This isn’t just a predictable response to mitigation measures that contradict the best practices advocated by both Sacramento and the Biden administration’s public health bureaucracy. It’s intuitive.
Polling routinely indicates that the unvaccinated are far less concerned about the prospect of COVID infection than the fully immunized, which makes sense given the lack of risk-aversion inherent in refusing immunization. And reimposing mask mandates only confirms the wisdom of their decision to abstain from vaccination. For them, there are few incentives to get vaccinated beyond their own health and the wellbeing of their family and neighbors—inducements that haven’t proven compelling enough to force them to abandon their skepticism yet. Indeed, the only logic that justifies the reimposition of mask mandates seems to be the psychological comfort it affords the already vaccinated.
Little enforcement of and even less compliance with new masking mandates ensures that there will be plenty of opportunities for the unvaccinated to congregate in the absence of any mitigation strategy. And creating incentives for the unvaccinated to gather among themselves will only compound the problem that champions of the new masking regime say they’re trying to prevent: increasing the transmission of COVID among the unvaccinated population and undermining the benefits associated with herd—not universal—immunity.
As 2020 drew to a close, New York Gov. Andrew Como did his best to justify his state’s refusal to allow the resumption of indoor dining despite the state’s statistics indicating that restaurants and bars did not significantly contribute to COVID’s spread. Banning this activity, the governor said, was “one of the few areas where we think we can actually make a difference.” In other words, this was a posture that an activist government could adopt to appease the constituents of activist government.
Likewise, the resumption of mask mandates is designed only to satisfy those who advocate “doing something,” regardless of what that something is. These mandates will be observed primarily by the already vaccinated and promise to have only a negligible impact on the spread of COVID-19 in the best circumstances. At worst, disparately observed and entirely unenforced mask mandates threaten to accelerate the spread of this disease.
An earlier version of this piece claimed that the city of Las Vegas had reimplemented its indoor mask mandate. Indoor masking is for now only recommended.