Public health officials have advised wearing masks in public, in order to reduce the risk of unknowingly transmitting the virus through droplets emitted from one’s mouth when speaking, coughing or sneezing. Many individuals who are infected with the virus do not develop symptoms, meaning that even people who do not feel sick could spread the virus to others.
Based on this federal guidance, many local authorities have issued regulations recommending or requiring that people wear masks in public settings.
These regulations have received a mixed response. Some critics argue that the mandatory regulations – and the fines and other punishments that accompany them – in some states are too harsh, infringing upon essential freedoms. Others worry that the use of masks may be ineffective or even harmful, claims which public health experts dispute.
Others have criticized the wearing of masks as a sign of weakness.
R. R. Reno, editor of the journal First Things, has been outspoken in his criticism of quarantine measures enacted in New York and other parts of the country. In a series of tweets this week – which were later deleted – Reno encouraged people to eschew masks, which he described as caving to a culture of fear.
“Masks=enforced cowardice,” Reno said in one tweet.
“The mask culture if (sic) fear driven,” he said in another, adding, “It's a regime dominate (sic) by fear of infection and fear of causing of infection. Both are species of cowardice.”
However, Dr. Golder objected to the claim that following the guidance of public health officials is succumbing to fear or weakness.
“It isn’t fear to exercise prudent care for ourselves and others,” she told CNA. “This is a serious situation…When 60% of the population falls into a risk group because of age or an underlying medical condition such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease, it’s prudent to try to avoid infection.”
Golder acknowledged that conflicting advice early in the pandemic may be confusing, but explained that federal guidance has changed as scientists have learned more about the new virus and how it is spread.
“We now know that it is communicable by aerosol droplets that are expelled by coughing, sneezing, and even, to a certain extent, by breathing,” she said. “We also know that this happens even in patients who are infected and shedding virus but who do not have symptoms.”
For this reason, masks – along with social distancing – are an important tool in fighting the spread of the disease, she said.
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“Wearing a mask limits the possibility of dispersing infective particles in the air, as well as reducing the risk of inhaling them,” she said.
Golder noted that small children, those who have breathing difficulties, and those who are physically unable to put on a mask need not wear one, but added that they may want to significantly limit contact with others.
But for most Americans, she said, “wearing a mask is a way of exercising our care for the other, who could be harmed if we do not.”
Leah Libresco Sargeant, author of “Building the Benedict Option,” echoed the idea that wearing a mask is a way of showing love for one’s neighbors.
“It's much more a question of care than of fear,” she told CNA.
While masks may be somewhat uncomfortable, they are a small inconvenience that can be embraced out of charity for others, Sargeant suggested.