Wearing a mask may still give some people a sense of security, but they could breathe more easily if they’d face the facts.
The pandemic has eased, but not the compulsion of many Americans to cover their faces. Fully vaccinated adults are still wearing masks on their solitary walks outdoors, and officials have been enforcing mask mandates on airline passengers and on some city-dwellers and students. (Though today’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle in Tampa, declaring the Biden administration’s mask mandate for public transportation unlawful, comes as welcome news.) Maskaholics in the press are calling for permanent masking on trains, planes, and buses. High school students in Seattle staged a protest demanding that a mask mandate be reinstated, and psychologists now deal with the anxieties of children who don’t want their classmates to see their faces. They’re suffering from “mask dependency,” as this psychological affliction is termed in Japan, where a long tradition of mask-wearing during flu season has left some individuals afraid at any time to expose their faces in public.
It’s a difficult addiction to overcome, according to the Japanese therapists who specialize in treating it—but a simple remedy might help some maskaholics. It’s a graph that should be required viewing for everyone still wearing a mask and every public official or journalist who still insists that mask mandates “control the spread.”
The graph tracks the results of a natural experiment that occurred nationwide during the pandemic. Eleven states never mandated masks, while the other 39 states enforced mandates. The mandates typically began early in the pandemic in 2020 and remained until at least the summer of 2021, with some extending into 2022. The black line on the graph shows the weekly rate of Covid cases in all the states with mask mandates that week, while the orange line shows the rate in all the states without mandates.
As you can see from the lines’ similar trajectories, the mask mandates hardly controlled the virus. By the time the mandates were introduced in New York and other states in the spring of 2020 (at the left side of the graph), infections had already been declining in those states, and the mandates didn’t prevent a surge later that year, when cases rose and fell in nearly identical trajectories regardless of states’ mask policies. The pandemic’s second year saw slight deviations in both directions, but those reflected the seasonality of the virus and the geography of mask mandates, which remained more common in northern states. Cases were higher in the non-mandate states last summer, when the seasonal surge in the South disproportionately hit Republican states without mandates, but those states went on to have fewer cases during the winter, when the seasonal surge in the North hit more Democratic states with mandates.
If you add up all the numbers on those two lines, you find that the mask mandates made zero difference. The cumulative rate of infection over the course of the pandemic was about 24 percent in the mandate states as well as in the non-mandate states. Their cumulative rates of Covid mortality were virtually identical, too (in fact, there were slightly more deaths per capita in the states with mask mandates).
If this hasn’t persuaded you to take off your mask, you can find lots more reasons in a book by Ian Miller, the data analyst who created the graph for City Journal. Miller, who has tracked pandemic trends for the Brownstone Institute, has assembled the damning evidence in Unmasked: The Global Failure of COVID Mask Mandates. The book documents how mask mandates were implemented without scientific justification, how they failed around the world, and how public officials and journalists have kept making fools of themselves by pretending otherwise.
In their pre-Covid planning strategies for a pandemic, neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the World Health Organization had recommended masking the public—for good reason. Randomized clinical trials involving flu viruses had shown, contrary to popular wisdom in Japan and other Asian countries, that there was “no evidence that face masks are effective in reducing transmission,” as the WHO summarized the scientific literature. The pandemic planners at the United Kingdom’s Department of Health had reached a similar conclusion: “In line with the scientific evidence, the Government will not stockpile facemasks for general use in the community.” Anthony Fauci acknowledged this evidence early in the pandemic, both in his public comments (“There’s no reason to be walking around with masks,” he told 60 Minutes) and in his private emails (“I do not recommend you wear a mask,” he told a colleague, explaining that masks were too porous to block the small Covid virus).
But then Fauci, like the CDC and the WHO, bowed to political expediency and media hysteria. Mandating masks gave the illusion of doing something against the virus. When the initial spring wave in 2020 subsided, public officials and journalists claimed that the mandates had worked, and they kept up the pretense even when Covid surged again later that year despite the continuing mandates. The resurgence was blamed on people disobeying the mandates, never mind the surveys showing widespread compliance.
This pattern of magical thinking persisted throughout the pandemic, as Miller demonstrates in dozens of graphs contrasting conventional wisdom with cruel reality. Again and again, journalists and public-health officials would single out a state or a nation that had supposedly tamed Covid by forcing citizens to wear masks—and then these masks would promptly fail to prevent an unprecedented wave of infections. In the summer of 2020, Politico praised Rhode Island’s “wear-your-damn mask” policy in an article headlined, “How the Smallest State Engineered a Covid Comeback.” A survey in the autumn found that 96 percent of Rhode Islanders were wearing masks, the highest rate in the U.S., yet that winter the state went on to suffer one of the nation’s worst Covid surges. So did New Mexico, whose surge began shortly after Scientific American praised the state’s strict mask policies in an article headlined, “How New Mexico Controlled the Spread of Covid-19.”
Meantime, the media’s favorite experts kept predicting doom for states that never mandated masks, like Florida, or that ended the mandates early in 2021, like Iowa, whose policy shift was denounced as “reckless and delusional” in a Washington Post article headlined, “Welcome to Iowa, a state that doesn’t care if you live or die.” Iowa’s Covid death toll plummeted right after the article appeared. Over the course of the pandemic, both Iowa and Florida have done better than the national average in measures of Covid mortality as well as overall excess mortality (the number of deaths more than normal from all causes).
Instead of carefully analyzing the effects of masks, the CDC repeatedly tried to justify them by misrepresenting short-term trends and hyping badly flawed research, like studies in Arizona and Kansas purporting to show that infections had been dramatically reduced by the mask mandates imposed in some counties. But in each state, as Miller shows, infection rates remained lower in the counties that did not mandate masks.
The CDC received some criticism for its junk science on masks, particularly for its false claims about the benefits of masking schoolchildren, but the press mostly promoted the agency’s narrative. Little attention was paid to more rigorous research, like a review of the literature that found little or no benefit from masks, or a study that compared infection rates with mask policies and with rates of mask use in all 50 states over the first year of the pandemic. The study concluded that “mask mandates and use are not associated with slower state-level Covid-19 spread during Covid-19 growth surges.” The media’s narrative about masks extended throughout the world. “Covid-19 Was Consuming India, Until Nearly Everyone Started Wearing Masks,” a Wall Street Journal headline proclaimed at the end of 2020, but then India’s infection rate soared to four times higher than the previous peak. “Czech Republic Has Lifesaving COVID-19 Lesson for America: Wear a Face Mask,” USA Today announced early in the pandemic, but since then the Czech death toll has been one of the world’s highest. Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Uruguay, Chile, Poland, and Hungary were all hailed as models of scientific enlightenment for their low infection rates and strict mask policies—until, as usual, the masks suddenly lost their magical power.
Germany’s stringent policies have made it a consistent media darling. CNBC called the nation’s early Covid response “a master class in science communication,” and last fall it was praised for tightening its mask mandate in an Atlantic article, “Four Measures That Are Helping Germany Beat Covid.” Its stricter mandate early last year banished cloth masks, requiring surgical masks instead, and the states of Berlin and Bavaria went still further, requiring masks of N95 quality. But as Miller shows in his book, the policies made no discernible difference. The surgical masks didn’t stop a subsequent surge throughout the country, and infection rates in Bavaria and Berlin were the same as in German states without the N95 requirement.
If you’re still not convinced to take off the mask, consider one more graph from Miller. It compares Germany with Sweden, the media’s Covid villain for refusing to lock down or mandate masks. Sweden’s initial Covid surge was blamed on those lax policies, but Sweden stuck to them and actually discouraged masks in most situations. As indicated on the graph, surveys during the pandemic showed that fewer than 10 percent of Swedes bothered to wear masks. In Germany, by contrast, more than 80 percent did so, but look at the similar trajectories of the daily Covid death toll in both countries from the summer of 2020 through March of this year.
The masks in Germany obviously didn’t “beat Covid.” From the start of the pandemic through this spring, the cumulative rate of Covid mortality has been slightly higher in Sweden than in Germany (by about 15 percent), but the rate of overall excess mortality has been slightly higher in Germany (by about 8 percent). Just as in the United States, the mask mandates in Germany produced no net benefits but plenty of inconvenience as well as outright harm. Covering up may give the maskaholics a false sense of security—but they could breathe more easily if they’d just face the facts.
Content from the City Journal of the Manhattan Institute
John Tierney is a contributing editor of City Journal and coauthor of The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.