Just when we thought we were almost done, COVID-19 cases are surging. The world may have one of the most effective vaccines ever developed, but not everyone is taking it and so we remain susceptible to the delta variant.
Not surprisingly, this has renewed calls to bring back a response that makes some feel safe and under control: mask mandates. And not just for the unvaccinated; Los Angeles, St. Louis and Savannah, Georgia, are again requiring everyone to wear masks indoors. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is toughening its mask guidance, too, which will provide cover for other local governments to issue mandates.
This is a mistake. The existence of the vaccine means we’re facing a different risk problem than we did a year ago, or even several months ago. Normally, governments leave most risk-taking decisions to individuals. But the nature of a novel pandemic means we don’t know the extent of what we were facing, and one person’s risk calculation will affect others. Before we had a vaccine, this uncertainty justified extreme policies such as shutdowns and mask mandates to prevent every infection we could.
But the vaccine brings the risk back down mainly to the individual. The objective now is to get the vaccine into as many arms as possible. And what we know from behavioral economics suggests that universal mask requirements will undermine this effort — and for little benefit in return since the ill-fitting, poor-quality masks most people wear won’t offer much protection anyway.
Vaccine hold-outs have a variety of reasons. Some will not be persuaded, no matter what. But others are indifferent, skeptical, just can’t be bothered or are afraid. In the best of times, people often struggle to make sensible risk decisions. We over-estimate extreme and unlikely outcomes, under-estimate more probable risks, or sometimes are just too lazy to make the prudent choice.
Behavioral economics tell us that if you want to get people to do something, you have to make it the path of least resistance. So our governments should be making it easier to be vaccinated than the alternative. Policies like New York City’s new requirement that all municipal employees be vaccinated or submit to frequent testing is a good example of this. But requiring masks for all removes a major incentive to get a vaccine.
If you study the data, getting vaccinated is a no brainer. It nearly eliminates any possibility of severe illness and death. It greatly reduces the risk of getting sick at all, and if you do get sick, odds are it will be mild and you won’t pass it on to others. That doesn’t remove all risk from living your life vaccinated and unmasked, but we take similar chances every day, including driving, swimming or riding a bike.
The government must communicate today’s COVID-19 risk levels more clearly. How we communicate risk is the most powerful tool we have to help people make good decisions. Whether it’s local governments renewing mask mandates or the CDC strengthening its guidelines, people are hearing one overriding message: That they should be wearing masks again, whether vaccinated or not.
And that message undermines risk communication because it suggests vaccines aren’t good enough to keep us safe, and that there is no return to normal. The constant reports of breakthrough infections aren’t helping either, because they play into people’s inclinations to fixate on the most unlikely possibilities. Some hold-outs view the vaccine, itself, as a risk, and they need to be shown there’s a tangible benefit to taking that leap.
Last year, masking and social distancing were presented as a short-term solution while we awaited a vaccine. As we learned more about the virus, prolonging these measures made sense. But bringing them back when we have vaccines available suggests that these precautions will be with us forever, as the virus may be.
We’re already seeing a new social norm: Wearing a mask in public is no longer considered strange for those who want to do so. But requiring everyone to mask up not only undermines the work of getting vaccines into arms, it can undermine trust for the next, potentially more deadly pandemic.
Universal masking aims to protect three groups: the immune compromised who can’t get a vaccine or for whom vaccines don’t work as well, children under twelve who currently can’t get vaccinated and people who choose not to get vaccinated. But endemic COVID-19 means we need to start treating the disease like many other risks we routinely live with, like driving a car.
Our society wasn’t built to try to eliminate all risks for everyone, nor should it. Governments apply some regulation to steer the reckless to be more responsible, such as speed limits and seat belts, offer warnings and provide some extra help for the most vulnerable. Everyone else must decide which precautions make sense for themselves.
Allison Schrager is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of “An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk.”
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