On Friday, June 26, 157 days after the official beginning of the state’s coronavirus outbreak, Washingtonians from Pacific County to Pend Oreille, and everywhere in between, were hit with an official mask requirement. Per governor Jay Inslee and secretary of health John Wiesman's mandate, masks should now be worn in indoor public spaces and outdoors whenever social distancing isn't possible.
King County’s been on the mandatory mask wave since May 18, so that’s nothing new to us. But for much of the country—and the redder parts of Washington—wearing a mask isn’t a simple matter of public health. It’s a political statement.
If you’d traveled about an hour and a half south on I-5 just after the mandate was announced, you’d have seen the divide firsthand. Jared Wenzelburger, a photographer for The Chronicle in Centralia, captured the moment on video: “In case you guys didn’t hear, Gov. Inslee, in his infinite wisdom, has decided after over 100-some-odd days, that we should all wear face masks, inside and out,” Rob Snaza, sheriff of Lewis County (where I grew up) told a notably unmasked crowd. “Here’s what I say: Don’t be a sheep.”
Inslee responded that he doesn’t “agree with calling those folks somehow barnyard animals.” National press, including Washington and New York’s respective Posts, reported on the incident. Snaza has since partially walked back the statement, claiming he was only encouraging people to be a bit more skeptical of these orders from on high: “We continue to listen to the governor’s requests without asking questions,” he told Oregon Public Broadcasting.
By the time the mandate went into effect, counties around the state were moving to Phase 2 and Phase 3, and new cases seemed to be rising in tandem. A lot of us asked ourselves this question: “Isn’t this a little late in the game?”
I posed that same question to Jared Baeten, vice dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. "We're not late in the game,” he told me, “because this game is going to be going on for a long time."
In fact, according to Inslee, we're able to take small steps away from quarantine only because we have another protective measure available to us that has proven useful enough to rely on. "We want to get our hair cut and we want to go shopping again," he said in a press conference. "If we did not have this mask as an alternative strategy, and we still don't have a vaccine, we'd be in deep soup."
Just look at the United States’ now-infamous curve, the one that’ll block us, specifically, from travel to the European Union. Quarantine and mask-wearing work when most everyone buys in. But, often thanks to a calculus that prioritized economic recovery over virus containment, some states stopped taking those measures too soon. Washington’s mask mandate, Baeten says, could help us avoid that same fate.
“If everybody were to do those three things—stay home when you're sick, figure out ways to minimize your contacts, and wear a mask—we would go so far,” Baeten says, toward avoiding overwhelming hospitals and backsliding in the reopening phases. We'd also “protect as many people from getting sick as possible. Win, win, win.”
But why a mandate, rather than a simple directive? People clearly prickle at the perceived slight to their freedom. Jessica Baggett, external communications supervisor for the Washington State Department of Health, reminded me via email that the CDC and the DOH have both recommended masks since April—and "while some people voluntarily adopted face coverings, many in Washington state did not."
A recent study by Goldman Sachs—about as economically motivated as it gets—shows that a national mask mandate would increase the number of people who wear facial coverings by 15 percent, slowing the virus's growth rate by a percentage point (and saving 5 percent of the GDP).
With a mandate comes the theoretical power of enforcement: Here, those Karen types you’ve seen yelling at essential workers on social media could face 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine for their indiscretions. But it's unclear whether the mandate will be enforced—some Seattle police officers claimed to be unaware that such a rule even existed as recently as July 1, KUOW's Casey Martin reported on Twitter.
It's also not clear whether the mandate should be enforced, especially given that similar efforts elsewhere have disproportionately targeted Black people. A more equitable method for getting more people to mask up? Making sure everyone’s got one. As the first day of the mandate approached, Washington provided millions of masks to low-income people across the state, according to a Military Department press release.
Messaging on masks, Baeten admits, has been a little fuzzy. At the beginning of the crisis, health officials were primarily worried that we would run out of masks for those who need them most—namely, health care workers. People who weren’t directly in the line of duty were advised that masks weren’t essential, in part to keep up stock.
But thanks to efforts by businesses, crafters, and even ice cream purveyors, our mask inventory has grown. At the same time, we’ve learned more about the virus, including that you can feel perfectly healthy and still make someone else sick—an immunocompromised worker who’s had to remain in their cashier job to feed their family, or your grandpa you swear you stayed six feet away from.
“A mask protects me from you and you from me,” Baeten explains. “A mask is a signal that you care about yourself, your family, and your community.”
This is the biggest question on my mind: How has an innocuous health measure become political? Have we become so obsessed with liberty and the pursuit of happiness (I see you, spring breakers) that we’ve forgotten about the whole "life" thing?
“I think there's no politics that says 'I don't care about the people around me,'” Baeten says. “Public health is not political. It's about every one of us.”