A simple way to thwart COVID-19 is right in front of our faces

U.S. PIRG is calling on municipal, state and federal policymakers to mandate face masks in all indoor public spaces, as well as in outdoor locations where it’s hard for people to socially distance six feet apart.

To paraphrase something I recently saw online, if I told you that taking a pill every day would make you much less likely to contract the coronavirus (COVID-19) and could help save the lives of tens of thousands of fellow Americans, of course, you’d do that. Well, according to health experts, that pill is a mask, and it goes over your mouth, not in it.

More than 100 health and scientific leaders have signed a letter asking government officials to require people to wear cloth masks in all public places. The latest research indicates that “broad adoption of even relatively ineffective face masks may meaningfully reduce community transmission of COVID-19.” The key word here is “broad.” Scientists say that when at least 70 to 80 percent of people in a given area wear masks, that strongly protects the community against transmission of the virus. However, at 50 percent, the overall effectiveness is minimal. Unfortunately, over the past few months, we’ve seen too many public officials disregard their part of the social contract and put the health of their constituents in jeopardy by remaining silent about  — or even worse, discouraging Americans from –wearing masks.

With that information in mind, U.S. PIRG is calling on municipal, state and federal policymakers to mandate face masks in all indoor public spaces, as well as in outdoor locations where it’s hard for people to socially distance six feet apart — while reinforcing that social distancing is vital, regardless of whether people are covering their faces. 

Today, Louisiana joined 20 other states with statewide mask orders. However, we need more mask-wearing mandates to achieve overall compliance rates that will be effective in stopping the spread of the virus.

It’s never too late to start this type of policy.

“Even when implemented at 120 days after the initiation of the epidemic, 100% adoption of facemasks by the public stops the occurrence of further COVID-19 epidemic waves,” researchers wrote in a British Royal Society article published in June.

Now, we realize that some people have legitimate medical barriers to compliance. People with a doctor’s note would not have to wear a mask. If people with health conditions are the only ones without masks, we can still easily reach the 70-80 percent threshold for population-wide effectiveness.

Beyond medical constraints, the most common argument against mandatory mask wearing is that it’s an infringement on personal liberty and a government overreach. Specifically, one lawsuit claims a mask requirement violates the equal protection standard of the Constitution by disproportionately affecting those who can’t afford a mask. Another claims it’s an invasion of physical autonomy. 

But a judge replied that the orders are legal and said people “do not have a constitutional right to endanger others just like they do not have a right in a crowded theatre to yell fire.” The ACLU likened the requirements to the familiar “no shirt, no shoes, no service” rule.  

To maximize the effectiveness of mask regulations, we would need some complementary policies. For example:

  • Public education to instruct people on how to properly use masks.

  • Awareness campaigns to shift mindsets about masks away from pure self protection, towards aspirational goals of responsibly protecting one’s community

  • Plans to make masks widely available, especially at public buildings and on public transportation. 

The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, one of the leading research institutions tracking the COVID-19 pandemic, says if we can get 95 percent of people to wear face masks, at least 33,000 fewer people will die by October 1.

“People need to know that wearing masks can reduce transmission of the virus by as much as 50 percent, and those who refuse are putting their lives, their families, their friends, and their communities at risk,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of IHME.

We all love our families and friends, and most of us have pride in our communities. But four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that love and pride aren’t enough to convince enough Americans to regularly wear masks. We need to do everything in our power to stop this virus from infecting and killing more of us — and we can do by initiating policies that include the answer in front of our faces.


Abe Scarr

State Director, Illinois PIRG; Energy and Utilities Program Director, PIRG

Abe Scarr is the director of Illinois PIRG and is the PIRG Energy and Utilities Program Director. He is a lead advocate in the Illinois Capitol and in the media for stronger consumer protections, utility accountability, and good government. In 2017, Abe led a coalition to pass legislation to implement automatic voter registration in Illinois, winning unanimous support in the Illinois General Assembly for the bill. He has co-authored multiple in-depth reports on Illinois utility policy and leads coalition campaigns to reform the Peoples Gas pipe replacement program. As PIRG's Energy and Utilities Program Director, Abe supports PIRG energy and utility campaigns across the country and leads the national Gas Stoves coalition. He also serves as a board member for the Consumer Federation of America. Abe lives in Chicago, where he enjoys biking, cooking and tending his garden.