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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Authors Retract Study Showing Efficacy of Mask Mandates—as Biden Pushes Nationwide Requirement

One retracted study does not prove anything about the effectiveness of masks. Nevertheless, Americans should be wary of sweeping mandates that would use local police to enforce a federal initiative.

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A study showing that more than a thousand counties in the US saw COVID-19 hospitalizations decrease after passing mask mandates has been withdrawn.

The study, published on October 23 on the medical site medRxiv, had alleged that hospitalizations for COVID-19 decreased in 1,083 US counties after lawmakers passed mask mandates.

The article was updated on November 4.

“The authors have withdrawn this manuscript because there are increased rates of SARS- CoV-2 cases in the areas that we originally analyzed in this study,” the updated abstract reads. “New analyses in the context of the third surge in the United States are therefore needed and will be undertaken directly in conjunction with the creators of the publicly-available databases on cases, hospitalizations, testing rates.”

A Polarizing Subject

The use of face masks has become an increasingly polarizing topic in the US.

The effectiveness of masks has been a subject of debate, at least in part because public health officials have sent mixed messages. Early in the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Surgeon General, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading member of the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, all advised against using a mask in public if you were healthy.

While the WHO, the Surgeon General, and Fauci eventually modified their position, some of Europe’s top health officials have continued to resist calls to mandate or even recommend the use of masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, saying there is little empirical evidence to suggest they have a positive impact.

“The studies so far have not shown a dramatic effect, countries such as France and others, which have obligatory mask-wearing in place, have still experienced a big spread of the disease,” Dr. Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s top infectious disease expert, recently observed.

One retracted study is hardly enough to prove Tegnell and other European health officials are right. But it is likely to fuel debate surrounding the ethics of forcing individuals to wear masks, which some argue is a violation of the Principle of Effectiveness, which states public health agencies are only allowed to recommend interventions they know are effective.

It’s also worth pointing out that masks were not initially controversial. Many Americans began wearing masks in public at the onset of the pandemic. Masks did not become polarizing until governments began mandating their use, which has at times resulted in violent confrontations.

In May, for example, a 22-year-old mother who was not wearing a face covering was wrestled to the ground by New York City police in front of her child after allegedly refusing to comply with requests to cover her nose and mouth.

The encounter prompted the city to end the practice of arresting people for not wearing masks.

The woman, Kaleemah Rozier, announced in June she is suing the city for $10 million for excessive force.

The Perils of Force

Rozier’s case offers an example of the unintended consequences of mask mandates. While the obvious goal of mask mandates is more citizens wearing masks, which may slow the spread of the virus, an unintended consequence is increased interactions between citizens and police.

This is something Americans should keep in mind as we prepare for the possibility of a new presidency. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently projected to win the White House, has said he will “go to every governor and urge them to mandate mask wearing in their states. And if they refuse I’ll go to the mayors and county executives and get local masking requirements in place nationwide.”

Putting aside the troubling thought of nationalizing local police to enforce a federal initiative, this policy would almost certainly lead to a national surge in confrontations between citizens and law enforcement officials.

This would be a mistake. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that even seemingly routine encounters between citizens and law enforcement can quickly turn deadly.

The possibility of unintended consequences is not mere conjecture. As economist Antony Davies and political scientist James Harrigan have pointed out, when it comes to sweeping federal policies, unintended consequences are not the exception, they are the rule.

“Unintended consequences arise every time an authority imposes its will on people. Seat belt and airbag laws make it less safe to be a pedestrian or cyclist by making it safer for drivers to be less cautious,” they wrote in an article on the Cobra Effect. “Payday lending laws, intended to protect low-income borrowers from high lending rates, make it more expensive for low-income borrowers to borrow by forcing them into even more expensive alternatives.”

This is one of the first lessons of economics. As famed French economist Frédéric Bastiat showed more than a century and a half ago, policymakers must go beyond the initial act or law to see the entire series of effects, to see not just the “small present good,” but the evil that may follow.

Public health researchers should continue to develop sound science that will help individuals make informed decisions on the use of masks. But Americans should be wary of sweeping mandates that would use local police to enforce a federal mask policy, especially when the science is not yet settled.

Such an approach is constitutionally dubious, and it may end up doing more harm than good. 

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of at the Foundation for Economic Education.