The concerns and considerations of implementing a universal mask policy

America greatly stands to benefit from a universal face mask policy that mandates face coverings in public. Understandably, adoption of such a policy raises concerns, including:

  • Universal public masking will come with an exaggerated sense of security, loosening people’s social distancing practices.
  • Not everyone will use masks correctly, making their efforts counterproductive.

Part of a national universal mask policy should include efforts to educate the public. Government officials should begin by wearing masks themselves, especially in press and media appearances, to lessen stigmas and display correct mask usage. Authorities should additionally provide accessible instructions on how to wear masks while emphasizing the continued importance of social distancing. This could be achieved by promoting existing material from leading medical experts on social media, such as videos on proper mask wearing, and highlighting social distancing campaigns. Alternatively, the CDC could continue producing their own videos, as was done by Singapore’s Ministry of Health, or partner with celebrities to gain a wider reach with vulnerable populations. Ultimately, public education must be a key facet in successfully implementing a universal mask policy.

Universal public masking will deplete already dwindling PPE stores.

The CDC has promoted the public’s use of cotton face masks that can easily be made at home with materials around the house. As a public alternative to those used in clinical settings, cotton masks stand to increase the PPE available to health care workers, as they reduce the need for home stores of surgical masks and N95s. 

And don’t forget – America has yet to uncover the cotton mask’s potential in the world of fashion. Consumerism handling the reigns of a cotton mask trend shows great promise in making masks both popular and accessible. This way, the government doesn’t have to be the only body encouraging more healthy, unexposed citizens to wear cotton masks in order to save PPE for health care professionals. 

Shuhan He, ER physician and co-founder of GetUsPPE.org, shares these sentiments. “I want every consumer company to make and sell masks for every man, woman, and child,” he says. “I want masks with Gucci and Nike and in purple and red and gold and designs of every flavor, as long as it gets people to wear a mask.” A universal mask policy could set the foundation for this trend, giving manufacturers the consumer base needed to change culture through clout.

Universal public masking could negatively affect vulnerable populations.

In the time of social distancing, working from home is a privilege. “The well-off are employed in industries where they are at a desk,” says Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Mobility data from metro areas nationwide has shown that COVID-19 is not an equal opportunity pathogen, hurting those for whom staying at home means sacrificing income. Low-income essential workers largely fall into this category.

While a universal mask mandate has the potential to greatly benefit the bottom 10 percent, concerns remain regarding equal access to information. If the CDC’s recommendation for cotton masks is not properly broadcasted, a universal mask policy could accidentally trigger the unnecessary purchasing of surgical masks at obscene markups, a financial barrier to a city’s poorest residents. Public masking campaigns should include celebrities popular with diverse groups, and should be available in multiple languages. Every American household should know how to attain a few reusable cotton face masks with reasonable ease.

Additionally, if police are chosen to enforce the policy, racial minorities stand to face a disproportionate risk of being targeted for harassment and fines. Racial profiling could label minorities as essential workers, leading them to be perceived as greater threats than their white counterparts due to increased public exposure. Some black Americans also express concerns regarding the CDC’s recommendation to wear a bandana, as black men may “fit the description” for a gang member.

Ultimately, a universal mask policy holds enormous potential, but only if these nuances are addressed. 

Varsha Venkatakrishna is a medical student and is affiliated with #GetUsPPE.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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