You Don’t Have to Like the Decree, But Wear Face Masks Anyway

Wise King Ralph keeps a face mask at the ready.

by James A. Bacon

I’m still digesting Governor Ralph Northam’s face-mask mandate, but my initial reaction is that it could be worse. I dislike the coercive aspect of his executive order. But requiring Virginians to wear face masks in public buildings and places of commerce is less intrusive than compelling businesses and workplaces to shut down. If ordering people to wear face masks allows Northam to feel better about loosening other restrictions, then it’s a net gain.

There’s an element to the face mask debate that I find curiously neglected in the conservative/libertarian commentary I’ve seen. Conservatives and libertarians tout the virtue of personal responsibility. Regardless of whether or not face coverings protect you from getting the COVID-19 virus, they do reduce the chances that you will spread the virus. If we believe in personal responsibility as an alternative to government coercion, conservatives and libertarians need to live their values by… acting responsibly.

I would go one step further: If conservatives and libertarians want to see Northam release his Vulcan Death Grip on Virginia’s economy, they should do everything within their power to ensure that the coronavirus does not spread. If Virginia sees a significant uptick in the spread of the virus, that’s all the Governor needs to back peddle on his timid reversal of emergency shutdown measures.

There are good reasons to oppose the mandate. The Richmond Times-Dispatch actually gives a decent summary here:

Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said health inspectors at the agency had the power to “pull a license to operate” if a business is found out of compliance with health regulations.

The Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police earlier Tuesday “strongly” opposed a face mask requirement, arguing that it could force businesses to enforce it, potentially exposing them to dangerous encounters.

The police chiefs association said the order turns “good advice into a mandate” that will be enforced with trespassing citations and by physically removing violators from businesses.

The group argued it “destroys police/community relations and puts business owners in a no-win situation: either be prepared to confront people you value as customers, or avoid the risk of a potentially violent confrontation by keeping your business closed.”

I fully share those concerns, and they are worth highlighting in the hope of reversing the mandate. But at the end of the day, Northam has virtually limitless power to rule by emergency decree. While we should work to limit that power legislatively and constitutionally, that is a long-term project. In the short term, we need to reopen the economy, and given Northam’s mindset and the fact that he has the power and we don’t, that means doing what we can to drive the COVID-19 infection rate down.

Exercise personal responsibility: Wear masks and protect others from the virus.