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Tipsheet

What Were They Thinking? The Atlantic Mocked for Claiming 'Mask Mandates Don't Need to Make Sense'

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

A piece from Rachel Gutman on Sunday morning published in The Atlantic caused quite a bit of a stir, as she pointed out that "Mask Mandates Don't Need to Make Sense." Such was the original title, before it was quietly changed to read that "Mask Mandates Are Illogical. So What?" The subheadline offers "They only need to align with communities' goals," a point emphasized throughout the piece which illustrates how masks and mask mandates can be about control, whether such a point intended or not by Gutman. 

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The new title does not appear to have helped the though, as there's still outrage via Twitter replies and screenshot receipts of the original title, as Lindsey Kornick highlighted for Fox News. 

Regardless of the title, Gutman still goes about offering a bizarre sense of honesty, but without offering much solution. 

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Further, the point about mask mandates not needing to make sense still remains. That language is used almost verbatim in Gutman's closing.

She quotes Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in her closing paragraph, as well as throughout the piece. Kirk Sell offers that "I think that people have this expectation that everything has to be perfect, as far as how the logic works together."

"But no mandate is ever going to be perfectly consistent, and that’s okay. Mask policies can still make sense, so long as they serve a community’s shared goals," Gutman goes on to claim in her closing sentence.

Other experts in the piece at least more so acknowledge people being fed up with mask mandates:

It all feels rather performative and silly. Why have a mandate if it can be so easily ignored? “The public sees right through that, and I think that’s led to a lot of the backlash,” Joseph Allen, the director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program, told me. To Allen, mask mandates’ contradictions and compliance failures are signs that the U.S. should stop trying so hard to influence human behavior, and start focusing on improving ventilation and filtration in buildings. Masking, because it’s obviously visible and has become unavoidably politicized, is the pandemic-mitigation strategy that’s easiest for most people to notice—which might explain why it’s received so much attention from the public and the media. But structural improvements can operate in the background, protecting people without making them feel inconvenienced.

One common (though not definitively proven) argument against mask mandates is that they don’t actually change people’s behavior: People who would’ve masked anyway cover up, and people who don’t want to mask wear theirs badly or ignore the rules. “Anyone who has been in any sort of public location at any time during the pandemic recognizes that mask mandates are not followed consistently,” says David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. But even disregarded mandates could affect people in other, helpful ways. “From my perspective, the main benefit is not so much the masking itself, but the message to society that this wave is not yet over,” Dowdy told me. A mask mandate may not magically swaddle the faces of everyone in its jurisdiction, but it could remind already enthusiastic maskers to avoid large gatherings, or lead non-maskers to give the people around them a little more space.

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For all Gutman writes about mask mandates in her piece, the point seems to have confused many, and driven others to double down on their resistance to mask mandates. 

One point made that should be underscored, for instance, is about masking in schools. 

"If rules are going to be applied unevenly—with mask mandates in some locations but not others—the tightest restrictions should apply in buildings such as grocery stores, workplaces, post offices, and schools, says Anne Sosin, a public-health expert at Dartmouth College. These are not necessarily the places where the virus is most likely to spread, but elderly and immunocompromised people may not be able to avoid them as easily as they could a bar or a hockey game," one expert is quoted as saying, with added emphasis. 

Gutman also claims that "Mask mandates are easier to enforce in highly controlled environments, such as schools," which oversimplifies the movement in this country of parents asserting their rights to decide if their children should have to wear masks. Such parents-rights movements on masking are not referenced at all by Gutman in the piece, though. 

The piece also lacks a discussion on whether masks are effective, which would provide a key answer to "so what." or challenge how mandates "don't need to make sense." A big factor is what kind of mask a person is wearing. As CNN's medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen acknowledged last December, in light of the Omicron variant surge and the approaching holiday season, "cloth masks are little more than facial decorations" and "there's no place for them in light of Omicron."

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If mask mandates are so "illogical," and "don't need to make sense," perhaps the point to offer is not to ask "so what," but to advocate for getting rid of them, then. 

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