“On social media people shoot first and then don’t even bother to ask questions.” That’s what Rep. Larry Liston told me by phone, and I have to agree with him on that point, at least as a common tendency. But I did ask him some questions, and his answers help shed light on Colorado’s social divisions surrounding the wearing of masks during the pandemic.
I’ll get back to Liston soon enough. I want to start by explaining what I think about masks and about the social and political fights over them.
The key point is this: Masks work. By “work” here, I mean that wearing a decent cloth or surgical mask—or, better yet, a KN95 or N95 mask—reduces the risk of viral spread in a public indoor (or crowded outdoor) setting, other things equal.
Given the surge in cases, I’m avoiding in-person social interaction except within my immediate family at this point. I’m getting groceries and such delivered or picking stuff up curb-side. My wife and I are fortunate that we’re able to work at home; I realize that isn’t feasible for many people. If I do have to go out I’ll wear goggles and a KN95. I haven’t gone as far as one of my friends, who got a set of bona fide gas masks for his family. I respect his precautions, but, let’s face it, gas masks are expensive and difficult to wear. Short of that, I’m a “safety first” sort of person in the present circumstances.
Generally I think that people who claim that masks don’t work or who ostentatiously refuse to wear them in public don’t have good reasons for their commitments. I could point them, for example, to a recent Nature article reviewing the evidence that masks work, and this wouldn’t phase them. Their stance is about signaling their partisan alliances or their rebellious nature, not the science. They don’t want to believe that masks work and they don’t want to wear masks, so they don’t believe it and don’t wear them.
The attentive reader will have noticed a couple of caveats in my paragraph proclaiming that masks work. Masks reduce risk, they do not eliminate risk. That Governor Jared Polis, practically the Apostle Paul of masks, caught the cornavirus illustrates their limitations.
I also threw in the phrase, “other things equal.” Of course other things rarely are equal. What I think is going on is that a lot of people are “cashing out” much or all of the safety gains of masks by interacting more socially. An article in the Colorado Sun notes that Coloradans are moving around more.
Think of it this way. People can capture the benefits of masks in a couple of different ways. They can keep their social interactions constant and benefit by reduced exposure to the disease, or they can “spend” their mask safety by increasing their social interactions. Paradoxically, masks can provide a benefit even if overall people don’t reduce viral spread because they increase their amount of beneficial social interactions.
Anyone who has taken basic economics probably has heard the story of the economist who said that, if we really want people to drive safer, we should install a giant spike between the driver and the steering wheel. Some people compensate for safer cars with riskier driving. I’m suggesting that a lot of people do something similar with masks.
And there’s another variable. Just as people can irrationally reject masks, so people can irrationally embrace them. Some people treat mask wearing as something akin to a religious ritual. They act like a mask generates some kind of invisible force field to instantly kill all incoming viruses. Such people might actually be more dangerous with masks than without them, because they’re far more reckless in their behavior. Similarly, someone wearing a “magical” amulet might embrace more risks.
Masks work, then, in the sense that I described. But whether a given person by wearing a mask actually reduces the risks of spreading the virus to others, overall, depends on how else the person changes behavior. I don’t need to wear a mask simply because I don’t go into public. Relative to me, someone who frequently goes into public while wearing a mask has radically higher chances of infecting others. Masks aren’t magic.
After all that set-up, let’s get back to poor Rep. Liston. On November 30, Rep. Cathy Kipp blistered Liston in a Tweet. She showed a photo of Liston wearing his mask atop his head while speaking to two other unmasked legislators. Kipp wrote, “Not wearing a mask is one thing, mocking it like this or coming across the aisle maskless to greet your colleagues is just offensive.” This resulted in Liston being savaged on social media and in the press. I had a few mean things to say myself.
But then I talked with Liston and Kipp (by phone), and I realized there is more to the story. First off, Kipp was not accusing Liston of “coming across the aisle maskless to greet [his] colleagues.” That was some other representative whom she declined to name. Kipp was accusing Liston of “mocking” masks.
But, Liston told me, that’s not what he was doing. Rather, he found that, with the noise on the floor and the clear partitions between seats, his colleagues simply could not hear what he was saying to them. He said, “I was wearing a mask, I just wasn’t wearing a mask at that particular moment. I probably wore a mask 80% of the time.”
Liston said he was disappointed that Kipp broke an “unwritten rule” that “you don’t take pictures of fellow colleagues” and that she didn’t understand the context of the moment. “I was not trying to make any kind of statement whatsoever, I was just trying to talk with my colleagues,” he said.
“I do my best to practice safe protocols,” Liston added, in part because of his wife’s “immune deficiency disorder.” At the same time, he said, “I’m not going to go around living my life in fear.” I took him to mean that there are trade-offs between safety and other values.
To me, far worse that Liston taking his mask off is him not taking advantage of the free rapid testing available to all legislators. Kipp said she took a rapid test all three days of the special session. As I’ve argued, if we all regularly took such tests, we could get many more infected people into isolation and get the economy a lot closer to normal. Liston did go through the health and temperature check when entering the capitol, he said.
Kipp did the health checks, took the rapid tests, and almost always wore a KN95 mask, she said (taking it off only to drink fluids). Still, even she traded off some safety for other values. She said that, although many representatives attended remotely, she felt like she needed to attend in person to manage bills. And Kipp broke the six-foot distancing guideline for a friendly photo with a colleague. Still, Kipp took safety a lot more seriously than Liston did.
The pandemic is devastatingly real. Over a quarter-million Americans have died with this virus. Colorado is on pace to surpass 3,000 “deaths due to Covid-19.” Over 14,000 of our fellow Coloradans have been hospitalized with the disease. Thousands more have suffered serious debility at home for weeks or longer. Some fraction of the survivors will suffer lingering health effects for months or years.
If we can take reasonable precautions to reduce the spread of this deadly virus, why not do it? If being in public is really important to you, as it was important to Reps. Liston and Kipp, wearing a mask is a trivial inconvenience. This is not the time to obsess about partisan allegiances or to prove what a rebel you are. Not wearing a mask when you easily could does not prove you’re fearless. It proves you’re reckless. Be smart out there. The vaccines are coming. Until then it’s worth some extra effort to keep our mouth spray to ourselves.