The Compulsory Masking of New York City
By Jenin Younes
Nothing exemplifies politicians’ mishandling of the coronavirus more than the latest mask mandate issued by New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, in response to an uptick in positive PCR tests in a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. Like most of de Blasio’s orders, this one appears to be a poorly thought out, knee-jerk response to a situation the mayor is not equipped to manage.
For instance, de Blasio announced in May that there would be no law enforcement of the initial mask-wearing orders, following reports of discriminatory enforcement: people of color were far more often punished, and sometimes violently, for not complying. One would have thought that this prior experience would have taught de Blasio to exercise some temperance. Apparently not.
To be fair to de Blasio, he is not the only politician to have made such futile orders. In July, Spain implemented similar measures, requiring everyone to wear a mask outside, at all times, whether or not in proximity to others. Paris took the same approach in August. In a statement he has since softened, presidential candidate Joe Biden indicated that, if elected, he would issue a nationwide mask mandate, as “every single American should be wearing a mask when they’re outside for the next three months, at a minimum.”
Running, walking, or even socializing outside is not the cause of the vast majority of coronavirus outbreaks, regardless of mask usage. All summer, people engaged in precisely those activities, and it was for that reason that outdoor dining, for instance, was allowed in New York and many other places while indoor dining remained prohibited. Common sense suggests that because the weather recently turned colder, people have moved their gatherings indoors, probably explaining the increase in positive coronavirus cases in New York and parts of Europe.
De Blasio has cited no evidence – nor is there any such evidence upon which he could rely – demonstrating that his latest mask mandate is an effective means of curbing coronavirus spread. So one of the few pleasures New Yorkers were still permitted, that of walking or running outdoors maskless (at least for those willing to brave the curses hurled by our neighbors) perhaps even with a companion or two, has been seized from us, for no legitimate reason.
De Blasio’s order is all-too reminiscent of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s disturbing treatment of restaurant owners and patrons throughout the summer. In response to the reports of perturbed city residents, horrified by the sight of young people gathering to enjoy cocktails on the sidewalk after miserable months of sheltering in place, Cuomo forced the now struggling bar and restaurant owners to serve only seated customers. To add insult to injury, food was required with any purchase of alcoholic beverages. Perhaps this was better than following through on his repeated threats to shut the restaurants down again if the reveling continued. Nevertheless, it caused further economic hardship to the bar and restaurant owners, already struggling after having been forced to close for several months, and made it virtually impossible for New Yorkers to mingle freely in a group.
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What is so remarkable about this is that throughout the summer, the number of positive test results remained low, and there was no claim or reason to believe that any of the outdoor bar activity was causing the virus to spread. Thus, just as mask-wearing outdoors does not significantly decrease coronavirus transmission, meaning that there is no valid nexus between the measure implemented and the ostensible crisis, here there was not even a tangible problem.
The fear of rising positive PCR tests (never mind deaths or hospitalizations, which arguably should be the focus of concern) is not the same as an actual outbreak, and does not warrant measures that inflict great suffering on small business owners, not to mention New Yorkers for whom opportunities to socialize with friends were limited given the widespread closures and exhortations not to gather indoors.
Given the lack of a rational connection between the problem and the ostensible solution, it is readily apparent that such orders, whether issued in New York, London, Madrid or Paris, have nothing to do with preventing suffering and death, and everything to do with politicians’ exercise of control and authority over a population. That this is what is really motivating these types of orders is made all the more evident by their insults, in particular calling us selfish for engaging in activities that are inherent to our nature.
If these officials had our best interests in mind, instead of treating us like children or animals upon whom arbitrary punishment is inflicted in order to obtain obedience, they would contemplate the real problem and narrowly tailor solutions, taking into consideration the impact of any new policies on the population at large. That includes the economic and psychological consequences of lockdowns, mask mandates, and enforced social distancing. Positive PCR tests are not the only thing in the world that matters.
Jenin Younes is a public defender in New York City. She enjoys running, restaurants, and reading in her free time.