A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that mask mandates did little to nothing to curb the spread of Covid-19. The latest research further undermines the controversial policy.
A new study analyzing a pair of schools in Fargo, North Dakota—one which had a mask mandate in place in the fall of the 2021-2022 academic year and one that did not—provides more evidence that mask mandates are ineffective public policy.
“Our findings contribute to a growing body of literature which suggests school-based mask mandates have limited to no impact on the case rates of COVID-19 among K-12 students,” researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Davis concluded.
The findings, which have not yet been peer-reviewed, were published on July 1 in a preprint paper on Research Square.
‘It Should Have Been Included in the Summary’
Supporters of mask mandates will say one preprint study is hardly conclusive proof that mask mandates have been ineffective during the pandemic, and they’d be right.
Unfortunately, the latest research represents just one spoke in the wheel (to borrow an expression from a farmer I know). An abundance of research shows mask mandates in schools have been ineffective policy, including a robust Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study from 2020 analyzing some 90,000 students in 169 Georgia elementary schools in November and December.
“The 21% lower incidence in schools that required mask use among students was not statistically significant compared with schools where mask use was optional,” the CDC admitted in the report.
If you hadn’t heard that the CDC’s own research showed no statistically significant difference in schools that had mask mandates in place and those that did not, you can be forgiven. The CDC buried the finding, choosing not to include it in the summary of the report, a practice scientists describe as “file drawering.”
“That a masking requirement of students failed to show independent benefit is a finding of consequence and great interest,” Vinay Prasad, an associate professor in University of California, San Francisco’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, told New York magazine* last year. “It should have been included in the summary.”
The CDC never explained why it opted to not include the finding in its summary, but one obvious theory is that the CDC simply didn’t wish to highlight the fact that its own scientific research found its controversial policy was ineffective.
Despite its best efforts, however, evidence continues to mount suggesting that mask mandates are not effective at reducing the spread of Covid.
Asheville masked (and still masks, apparently) harrrderrrr than any other place in North Carolina. So, how did their case trend compare to the rest of the state? Almost identical. pic.twitter.com/f65wqgJP1T— Scott Morefield (@SKMorefield) July 3, 2022
Writing in The New York Times on May 31, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Leonhardt said that copious amounts of evidence show mask mandates appear to have little to no correlation with the spread of Covid.
“In U.S. cities where mask use has been more common, Covid has spread at a similar rate as in mask-resistant cities. Mask mandates in schools also seem to have done little to reduce the spread. Hong Kong, despite almost universal mask-wearing, recently endured one of the world’s worst Covid outbreaks.
Advocates of mandates sometimes argue that they do have a big effect even if it is not evident in populationwide data, because of how many other factors are at play. But this argument seems unpersuasive.”
There are many theories on why mask mandates appear to be so ineffective, a phenomenon Leonhardt sees as a kind of paradox because some scientific research shows masking is an effective method of preventing the spread.
Perhaps the masks people wear are of low quality. Perhaps the masks are being worn improperly. Maybe people in mandated settings remove facial coverings frequently. Perhaps the studies suggesting masks are effective at virus control are flawed or incomplete.
Whatever the reason, there’s an emerging scientific consensus that mask mandates have not been effective in curbing the spread of Covid.
A Different Theory on Why Mandates Failed
Decades from now, scientists will likely still be exploring why mask mandates were so ineffective during the Great Coronavirus Pandemic. Theories we can’t even imagine today will be offered, discussed, and debated.
One thesis that will likely not be explored is the idea that the means were all wrong.
The great economist Ludwig von Mises once observed that the state is fundamentally an organ of coercion, of force.
“The worship of the state is the worship of force,” Mises said. Force, we often forget, isn’t just an immoral way to organize society. It’s often ineffective. In his 1969 book Let Freedom Reign, FEE’s founder Leonard Read argued the means we choose matter much more than the ends we seek.
“Ends, goals, aims are but the hope for things to come…not…reality… from which may safely be taken the standards for right conduct…Many of the most monstrous deeds in human history have been perpetrated in the name of doing good—in pursuit of some ‘noble’ goal. They illustrate the fallacy that the end justifies the means.
Examine carefully the means employed, judging them in terms of right and wrong, and the end will take care of itself.”
The ends planners sought—less community spread—were noble. The means they used to achieve those ends—government force—were not. (If you do not believe mask mandates constitute force, review the videos of the Alabama woman body-slammed by a police officer and the New York mother thrown to the ground by NYPD officers. Both conflicts began over violations of mask protocols.)
Whether the lackluster results of mask mandates stem from their rotten means is debatable, of course.
But one person, at least, would not have been surprised by the sterile results: Leonard Read. Read understood that means matter more than ends, “the bloom pre-exists in the seed.”
This is why Americans would do well to remember that force is a dangerous foundation for a society, even if one’s ends are pure—and that it’s not too late to reimagine a world based on voluntary action.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated Prasad spoke to the New Yorker, not New York magazine. We regret the error.