West Virginia has joined the growing list of states mandating masks to try to reduce the spread of Covid-19. Governor Jim Justice’s executive order that took effect at midnight last night requires all West Virginians age nine and above to wear face coverings at all indoor public places where social distancing cannot be maintained.
The order comes as the number of Covid-19 cases in the state is on the rise. The Department of Health and Human Resources dashboard shows 119 positive cases last Saturday, the most of any day since the pandemic began. That was followed by 87 cases on Sunday, the second most of any day.
The rate of positive cases per test is now moving toward four percent, meaning the higher number of infections is not simply a result of more testing.
Justice’s order is controversial for a variety of reasons.
First, does the Governor have the authority to issue such an order? West Virginia State Code 15-5-6 gives the state’s chief executive authority to act to protect “the safety and welfare of the inhabitants of the state.”
For example, the Governor can order evacuations, control access to certain areas and even suspend provisions of regulatory statues during a state of emergency. Ordering mask-wearing during a pandemic would seem to fall under that statute.
Second, will ordering mask-wearing help slow the spread of the virus? There is plenty of research and expert opinion suggesting that it does.
The medical journal The Lancet recently published a meta-data analysis of 172 observational studies across 16 counties that concluded that wearing a face mask and social distancing helped to reduce the spread.
Additionally, a review of virus statistics in June by the National Governor’s Association found that in states that required mask wearing in public the number of Covid-19 cases declined, but in states where mask wearing was optional, the number of positive cases rose.
Third, how are West Virginians going to respond to being told to wear a mask? That is the great unknown. I have done a couple of unscientific online polls and typically about three out of four respondents say they wear masks when in public areas.
Compliance is not about enforcement—there is no penalty for not wearing a mask—but rather on the very personal appeal by Justice and health officials for West Virginians to help each other.
“Our power stops this disease right in its tracks,” Justice said at Monday’s briefing, adding. “If you don’t decide to wear the mask for yourself, do it for the 95 (people) that we have lost.”
Justice also suggested that if the numbers continue headed in the wrong direction, more drastic steps could be in order. “If we don’t (slow the spread), we’re going to have to pull back and we’re going to start shutting things back down.”
That would be a disaster for the state’s economy, which is struggling mightily to recover from the body blow of the last shutdown.
For those who do not want to follow Justice’s advice for political reasons, then at least pay attention to what West Virginia Covid-19 Czar, Dr. Clay Marsh, says. He has provided intelligent and practical guidance during the pandemic and he has consistently put his faith in West Virginians to use our power and our altruistic spirit to get through this.
His advice is simple: “We believe masks, face coverings, provide us the best opportunity to protect each other.”
We should follow doctor’s orders.
(Editor’s note: Here’s a link to me losing my cool with a caller over the the mask issue.)