The Epidemic is Receding. Why Do We Need a Mask Mandate Now?

by James A. Bacon

As Governor Ralph Northam ponders the details of a statewide order mandating Virginians to wear face masks, he might do well to consider the latest COVID-19 data in his deliberations.

A record number of test results, 11,609, were incorporated into the Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 database yesterday and published on the VDH dashboard this morning. (Only one day, May 1, saw a higher number, and that reflected a major change in reporting methodology.) This is the first time that Virginia has met Northam’s professed goal of a minimum of 10,000 tests daily.

Only 495 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed, the lowest number in more than a month. The percentage of positive tests fell to 4.3%. That was the lowest since March 18, before COVID-19 had reached epidemic proportions. Northam has cited evidence of declining positive-test ratios as an indicator for loosening his Vulcan Death Grip on Virginia’s economy.

But Northam appears to be committed to issuing a mask-wearing edict “especially for individuals going into businesses.” The only thing holding him back is that some issues remain unresolved. One is the “equity” implications of a mandate. Said he: “We want to make sure everyone has access to a mask.” In other words, he wants to ensure that members of poor and minority communities are not prevented by their inability to obtain masks from entering places of business. Another issue, he said, “We also want to talk about how we enforce that.”

One might legitimately as whether the Governor personally sees any efficacy in face masks, given his recent maskless appearance on a Virginia Beach boardwalk in close proximity to other beach goers. (See Steve Haner’s commentary here.)

More to the point, using the Governor’s own criteria and the latest VDH data, there appears to be less justification for a statewide mask mandate than ever before. The virus in Virginia continues to recede.

Let’s review the key metrics:

The number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases: 495, lowest since April 20.

Percentage of new confirmed cases: 4.3%, lowest since March 18.

The number of new hospitalizations: 33, the lowest since April 27.

Total COVID-19 patients in hospitals: 1,351, the lowest number since April 21.

The number of deaths: 12, the third lowest since April 14. Of those deaths, ten occurred in long-term care settings. That means only two deaths occurred from the general population. As I have said repeatedly, using the most important of all metrics, mortality, COVID-19 is mainly a nursing home epidemic.

In the context of requiring masks in business settings, consider these data points.

Total outbreak cases originating in “congregate” settings: 1,328, or 3.7% of all COVID-19 cases.

Total outbreak deaths originating in “congregate” settings: 19, or 1.6% of all COVID-related deaths in Virginia.

“Outbreaks” refer to incidents in which 10 or more people in the same setting contract the virus. “Congregate settings” refers settings where large numbers of people congregate in the same venue. The category excludes long-term care facilities, jails and prisons, healthcare facilities, and educational facilities, which VDH tracks separately. It includes everything from business conventions to musical performances, places of worship to places of work. Places of employment and commerce sub-sets of this larger category. These data points do not include smaller-scale spreading incidents and, therefore, cannot be regarded as a complete accounting of virus transmission in these settings. This is a far-from-perfect indicator of the prevalence of viral spread in places of business but it’s the best we’ve got.

I can find no data published in the Virginia Department of Health dashboard to single out places of commerce and work as locations where the virus spreads. Perhaps the Governor has access to data that the public does not. Hopefully, he will share it when he announces his mask mandate.

What we do know for certain is that long-term care facilities are associated with 59% of all COVID-related deaths in Virginia. (The percentage has been even higher in recent days.) If the public health goal is to save lives, then the Northam administration should focus on containing the disease in nursing homes. To paraphrase Willie Sutton, who said he robbed banks because that’s where the money was, nursing homes are where the deaths are. Getting tangled up with the mandating of masks, fretting over the equity implications, and devoting brainpower to figure out how to enforce an unenforceable public health mandate will yield incremental benefits at best and distracts from the much larger problem.

Whatever the Governor decides, I plan to continue wearing a mask. At 67 years of age I have no co-morbidities that would elevate my personal risk, but I don’t want to become an unwitting, asymptomatic carrier of the virus. I interact with two individuals older than 90 who, by virtue of their age, are at elevated risk. Wearing a mask is my personal choice based upon my personal circumstances. However, I am leery of a statewide mandate that would ignore local conditions and personal circumstances. I look forward to seeing the details of the Governor’s mandate and the reasoning behind it.

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19 responses to “The Epidemic is Receding. Why Do We Need a Mask Mandate Now?”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well the masks are not to protect older people. The masks are to protect others from you – right?

    Also – yes, the virus is subsiding because of the shutdown. If we open back up – what will happen? Isn’t that idea behind the masks… for people to get back to a more normal life but to wear a mask to keep the virus from re-igniting?

    In other words, we’re trading loosening the restrictions for wearing masks – to keep the virus from starting up again.


    Just FYI – the battle lines are drawn. In a short trip to Walmart this morning, far less people were wearing masks that the prior two weeks.

    I took note of who. The younger folks and some middle-aged, oddly some couples where one wore and the other did not.

    Who wore the masks? The older and way more blacks than whites.

    But again – it looks like people are wearing masks for the wrong reason – which is to keep from infecting others – not to protect you from being infected.

    So the mask thing may well be self-expression of what one believes?

    Walmart has set aside the 7am time slot of the “at risk” both in store and pickup – and in theory they are the first in the store after it’s been disinfected. If people won’t wear the mask, I suspect those that are concerned will move their shopping to 7am.

  2. ksmith8953 Avatar

    I think it is too soon to say wearing a mask is nonsense. I for one will be wearing a mask. I haven’t seen my granddaughter who lives 10 miles from me since March 13. The reason, her mother and father go out in public often and don’t wear protective masks or gloves. I can’t chance it. The order is rather harmless and makes sense to me. I certainly will feel safer and I think it would help the economy.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      That clearly is part of this. Businesses may want to tell balking customers, “don’t blame us!” But no more will do it after the order than before. The time when a persuasive message would work is now passed. Now people have their backs up. Nobody likes being ordered.

    2. Actually I disagree but tell me your stats first. I’d say Bacon’s Rebellion has been pretty explicit all along that there is no reason for masks, and several court cases have shown the power grabs that are being taken in the name of one political party, in terms of dictator type behavior with power concentrated with one person.

  3. ksmith8953 Avatar

    Is the issue equity or being ordered. Certainly I can see equity, there are some who can’t afford a mask, and, you are correct, there are some that don’t like being ordered, but is not wearing a mask going to harm me if you are transmitting the virus. Luckily, I have a choice to protect myself.

  4. I am one of those healthy that says he forces me to put it on, I will be the first in line to be the test case for a lawsuit. This is the same as penalizing good drivers for their driving record with cars, also deadly weapons. Same for guns. During the run up to the state 2019 elections I went around and heavily followed it. One statement by a Democrat said they couldn’t wait to get power without the Republicans in the way and they could do what they want. State and federal level this tells you what you need to know. In addition, it takes off a watchdog after the Republicans, who pull the same power grabbing stuff at the local level.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    “I look forward to seeing the details of the Governor’s mandate and the reasoning behind it.”

    Northam sharing his reasoning about this? Oh, JAB, you always know how to give us a much-needed laugh in these dark days.

  6. ksmith8953 Avatar

    Are any of the stats trustworthy? We have not been here before, so the data is used to make the best guess. I have a choice to wear a mask and I will do so. What if I am 77 and need to go to the pharmacy and I don’t have a mask? Am I going to be let in the store? Will others around me also not wearing a mask be contagious? It is not fair either way. My point is, for the sake of equity, give choices. Be reasonable and people will comply. Be a Trumpster or a dictator, like many accuse Northam, they won’t. The motive should be your safety, not because you don’t like being told what to do.

  7. ksmith8953 Avatar

    Northam’s slogan should be “Keep Virginia Open-Please Wear a Mask When You Can!”.

  8. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    My glasses fog up when I wear a mask. I actually have a scuba mask that has bifocals and a snorkel but that would be too weird

    1. My 90-year-old mother wears swimming goggles when she goes out. The least you can do is wear your scuba mask!

    2. Nancy_Naive Avatar

      Given that the eyes are one of the three top entry points for socially acceptable infections….

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    I’m not sure given the culture divide and each side’s affinity to their own preferred media that “persuasion” would work unless it came from the media one prefers.

    On an individual basis, one might think it boils down to where one believes masks can limit the spread of virus and perhaps beyond that if one believes virus spread is a big deal if not many die from it – and most of them are older and in nursing homes and prisons.

    Clearly, on the right – the use of masks is now being equated to a Constitutional “freedom” issue – that it is a person’s fundamental “right” to not wear it if they do not want to.

    The stores are going to get caught in the middle – damned if they mandate and damned if they do not – either way they lose business.

    I can see some stores starting to have mask-only hours and other hours where masks are not required – and folks make their choices.

    I can see some businesses advertises that they are “mask only” or a “no mask needed” business.

    And I can see security guards enforcing the rules and some folks arrested when there are physical confrontations…

    1. ksmith8953 Avatar

      Larry G.,
      You have great foresight! Let’s see what happens. I think you have nailed it! If you see me next week, by choice, it will be with my mask.

    2. I was talking about this with someone the other day, and quite frankly if there is any mandate by stores it should just be during those special hours for the more vulnerable. If you required masks during those special hours, and didn’t require it at other times, you’d then do a good job of pleasing everyone while also working to protect the hardest hit among us.

      The unions are the ones who pushed for this, not consumers. Therefore, it’ll be interesting to see how businesses decide to actually work with this going forward.

      Personally, I’m against mandates in this matter for a number of reasons, but I also ? support anyone who wishes to wear a mask. Virginia was already doing a great job up until this point, all voluntarily, and to suddenly make it a mandate is ludicrous. The Governor himself initially indicated that he’d only enact such restrictions if the declining trends somehow reversed and climbed, which they haven’t done, therefore it’s important to understand that even he doesn’t appear to believe in all of this outside of being pressured into it.

      Also, please read the entire Executive Order, and realize just how absurd it all is. It was supposed to only apply inside, but it also says that it applies outside at these establishments (including but not limited to zoos, theaters, amusement parks, etc.). Additionally, you’re exempt for medical reasons, and nobody can question your medical reasons. It’s also a mandate, but cannot be enforced against the individual with a fine or criminal charge.

      So again, what’s the point of this right now? In complete context there simply is no point, it’s illogical.

  10. VDoTyranny Avatar

    Here’s how it will be enforced:

    This won’t be a mandate on individuals because politicians know it takes awhile for the public to come around; Instead, the government will require businesses to enforce the regulations as they do with many other things.

    An anonymous 1 (800) Tattle-Tail line will be set-up for competitors, disgruntled former employees and a few busy bodies (aka Larrys and Karens) to report violations.

    Idealist, young regulators out to prove their moral superiority will be employed by the State to drop fines on a few unfortunate businesses to set an example.

    Business will be blamed by the public either for requiring masks or not enforcing the requirement, depending on individual POV.

    Politicians will use that to their advantage to besmirch “greedy, selfish” business owners (who refuse to donate to / beg for help from the right cause / party.)

  11. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Just saw a Nextdoor post ratting on a local Food Lion. The NAZIs had all the snitches they needed. 🙂

    As someone more vulnerable, I’m wearing the mask indoors at stores, etc., and would appreciate others doing so. The CDC and others continue to say about 1/3 of cases are spread from people who think they are virus free. I’m sorry the Overlords blew this message, because the masks clearly helped in Asia. And of course for weeks the “experts” and our Media Overlords sent the opposite message. More proof they are morons.

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      As for the masks, the good news is the basic ones are easy to get now, and cheap. The bad news is:

  12. kls59 Avatar

    Two questions which makes this idiotic [well, two of many]:
    1. define MASK.
    2. define WEAR.

    i shall ‘wear’ mine to keep the sun off my bald spot

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