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Mask Wearing—Theater or Obligation?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
July 18, 2020

To wear or not to wear a mask—that’s today’s question. Before you answer, consider the legal, political and ethical bases for subscribing to either the Pro-Maskers or the Anti-Maskers clubs. After all, mask-wearing may have even surpassed baseball as our national pastime!

I’ve been able to ascertain the following findings and conclusion from my own research on what medical leaders are saying:

  1. Masks are not 100% preventive—they are a primary means of risk reduction. No other preventive measures that you can name, such as wiping doorknobs, grocery bags or cleaning you phone and/or keys by ultraviolet lights rays comes close to wearing a mask.
  2. Some masks are more efficient than others—but all are way better than nothing. If you don’t wear a mask correctly though, it will not have the desired preventive effect. For example, it does no good if it is slung around your neck while you’re shopping so that you can breathe more easily.
  3. If you and the person you are interacting with are both wearing masks, the risk of transmission goes way down.
  4. The best mask is the one that you can wear comfortably but with a snug fit.
  5. There’s a good possibility that we will be wearing masks for the next couple of years.

The Legal (and Public Administration) Lens

I’m confident there is no constitutional or federal basis for any proposed legislation that forces citizens to wear masks in places that it does not control. It can, however, compel mask-wearing at ports of entry, federal buildings and operations, airspace, etc.  The states are where the action is on this important issue. States have the primary authority to do all kinds of things to ensure public safety in times of pandemics and emergencies, including mandating mask-wearing and quarantines.

Let’s apply this fact to Texas. Governor Greg Abbott already has the power to take every single action he has taken so far to combat this epidemic. Why then should he request that the Texas legislature convene in special session—to do what, exactly? To his credit, Abbott wrote the mask mandate in such a way that really gives Texas localities a great deal of flexibility in enforcement. Agree or disagree, I believe this governor has led the state exceptionally well during this crisis, providing a model for other states to follow.

The Political Lens

It seems to me that wearing a mask has become a badge of honor for a lot of political liberals and a lightning rod of discontent among many political conservatives. There has been some party line crossing on the mask issue, however, with Republican mask-wearing individuals and Democrat mask resistors each having their own reasons. Staunch libertarians remain just that; the mask for them represents just another means by which all levels of government can encroach on their personal liberties.

The Ethical Lens

Ah, here is where things can get dicey! Ethics is basically the study of human behavior with respect to our intrinsic nature as people. It deals with morality and values in our society—what is right and what is wrong.  There are always religious overtones that run through the field of ethics and they are front and center with respect to the mask-wearing issue. Many Christians believe that it is our duty to wear a mask in public because of our moral obligation to preserve life. That includes our own lives and the lives of others because life is God-given and precious.

Medical ethics comes into play here as well. The fundamental principle of medical ethics is: “Primum non nocere,” (“First, do no harm.”) There exists in medical ethics an abundance of writing citing the need for being cautious and careful with respect to placing others in harm’s way.

Conclusion

The legal perspective of mask-wearing is straightforward. If, however, a state was to engage in an action, policy or law that conflicts with the federal level, then the federal level will displace the state level when the two come into conflict. That is the power of the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The political arguments are generally boring and useless, as is most discourse borne from ideology. If you take actions based on ideology, then please re-read this article, paying special attention to the legal and ethical analyses. Politics or party affiliation must not be your guidepost in this way—you must make the decision for you and your family.

The ethical underpinnings of the mask-wearing issue are clear: if you personally believe that masks lessen the possibility of you giving the virus to others, or you getting the virus from others, then your moral obligation is to wear them. You may recall the time-honored saying of, “Your rights end where my rights begin.” The origin of that phrase is former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who stated, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” In like fashion, my right to not wear a mask ends where your right to be protected begins.


Author: Dr. Robert Brescia is a senior executive with service to the nation in military, business, and education. He respects the wisdom of generations, promotes learning, and teaches ethics to university students. Bob’s latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Contact him at [email protected].

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