No one is owed an apology for mask mandates

It’s fashionable these days among conservatives to look back on the early days of COVID with smug self-congratulations.

“See? We, those who said that masks were ‘face diapers’ and who screamed at grocery store workers over mask rules were correct. Those mask mandates did nothing. It was you, the government and liberals, who were wrong to shame us for noncompliance.”

Witness the recent New York Times column by Bret Stephens, in which he says that those who fought mask mandates are owed an “apology” — from whom, exactly, it is unclear. The CDC? Governors? Mayors? Hospital administrators? Anyone who wore one? Maybe all of the above.

It’s true that recent studies have appeared to show little benefit from mask mandates in terms of reducing COVID’s impact. Whether that unclear benefit comes from a lack of randomized trials, people’s resistance to wearing masks even when required or improper mask-wearing — those things we may never know. But the point is both fair and taken: Mask mandates did not appear to do much to reduce COVID’s spread.

Where I depart from the current GOP Monday Morning COVID-backing, though, is that those who recommended, created or even complied with mask mandates somehow owe an apology to those who opposed them.

I remember the early days of the pandemic, taking my boys to a playground to get them out of the house. It was eerily quiet on our walk there, and as they scampered over the slides and monkey bars, a man walking his dog approached and suggested (from a safe distance) that I take my kids home.

“The virus can live on the playground equipment for days,” he told me, confidently.

Later, I tried to research his claim. But it soon became clear that the truth was discomforting — no one knew. It wasn’t even clear at that point how the virus was transmitted. Was it through touch? Breathing? Saliva? We had yet to discover even the most basic details about the disease.

It would be some time before my kids would again touch playground equipment, though eventually we decided the risk of avoiding outdoor play was low enough and the cost high enough to take the chance.

We all made similar calculations in those early days. What was the risk versus reward of cleaning your groceries? Wearing a mask while outside? Going into the office?

We did the best we could.

The same, I think it should be emphasized, went for public officials, doctors and scientists and public policy experts and politicians, the people who had to recommend and make rules for managing the pandemic.

We made — they made — in some cases, the wrong call.

But with mask mandates, the pandemic’s massive risk didn’t have to do much to outweigh the minor reward of buying milk with your face uncovered. No adult was harmed by having to wear a face mask, and the questionable impact on children’s development was balanced by a very understandable desire to prevent the deaths of millions of people.

When you know better, you do better, as the saying goes. But just as I don’t believe I owe my children an apology for keeping them off the swing sets at the park, I don’t believe the CDC owes anyone an apology for recommending face masks.

It is time for a debate about the continuing use of mask mandates — though it may be impossible to conduct the kind of trials necessary to prove whether masking prevents the transmission of COVID or other respiratory illnesses. And that debate should be informed by the best science we can find, but also by the understanding that true clarity on the topic is ephemeral, hard to grasp and illusory.

Doubt anyone who claims to know everything. Doubt anything that claims to explain it all.

Believe, only, that humans are all fallible and that we all fall short of perfection.

And we should, ultimately, expect only as much grace in our imperfections as we dispense.


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