Lawmakers Want Free Face Masks for All

July 30, 2020 8:50 AM
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Senior citizen aged woman wearing a face mask as she looks out of a window

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Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate that would provide free face masks for every person in the country in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The Masks for All Act of 2020 (S. 4339), as written, directs the president to “eliminate all shortages of face masks, surgical masks, and N–95 respirator masks in the United States” by requiring the government to manufacture and then distribute three reusable face masks to “every individual in the United States” including those that are homeless and living in group quarters as defined by the Census Bureau. It also explicitly states that anybody receiving a mask would not be required “to provide identification or proof of citizenship in order to receive the face masks.”

The legislation says that the masks would be manufactured by the government in the United States and would be distributed using the Postal Service “to the greatest extent possible.” With the Postal Service losing even more money than usual this year, this is probably an attempt to gin up some additional business for the organization while also fulfilling the requirements of the legislation.

The bill is being introduced in the Senate by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and in the House by Congresswoman Lori Trahan (D-MA).

“Free” Masks?

The text of the legislation also goes to great lengths to say that the masks would be free, making gratuitous use of statements such as “no costs to individuals,” “not be charged,” and “no cost to persons or states.”

However, there is an entire separate section that talks about the costs of the bill’s requirements. Under the appropriations section, it states that $5 billion would be allocated out of the Treasury to pay for the various requirements in the bill: manufacturing the masks, shipping them, and distributing them. In other words, despite saying the masks would be free for everyone, they actually would come with a fairly hefty cost to taxpayers.

“Education Materials”

The legislation also states the distributions of masks would come with “education materials.” It states that the masks “shall be accompanied by a 1 page fact sheet on the importance of wearing face masks, the proper use of face masks, and the nearest face mask pickup sites…”

The requirements for this “fact sheet” state that it would be:

  • “Scientifically and medically accurate”
  • “Written for a layperson”
  • “Presented in a size and type of font is easy to read”
  • “Provided in the languages that are most appropriate for the community”

No details are provided as to what constitutes “scientifically and medically accurate” information.

This information also would have to be published on the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Department of Health and Human Services websites in “multiple languages and in a manner that is in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 for reading by the visually impaired.”

Sanders said in a statement about the bill that it is a practical approach that can help prevent the spread of the virus.

“Dozens of my colleagues and I are proposing that we do what our public health experts and scientists say we must do. This is not a political or partisan issue. Providing all of our people with high-quality, reusable masks without cost could save tens of thousands of lives and avoid hundreds of billions of dollars in economic harm,” said Sanders.

Trahan took a more politically oriented approach in her statement about the bill, saying, “This Administration has taken too long playing politics while Americans continue to fall ill and die. We must embrace bold proposals like the Masks for All Act to combat COVID-19 and save lives. If the White House refuses to take action to ensure the safety of the American people, including ensuring that each person has access to safe, reusable masks, Congress will.”

When Can the Masks Come Off?

Something I frequently wonder when I am faced with the increasingly prevalent pressure to wear a mask is what the metrics are for when we will be able to stop wearing them.

We are now being told ad nauseam that wearing a mask helps to stop the spread of the virus. Fair enough. Science now seems to increasingly make the case for masks, although we were initially told they weren’t helpful in stopping the spread of the coronavirus which probably leaves some people feeling skeptical given the somewhat abrupt 180-degree shift in the logic coming from the medical community.

Infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a recent interview that covering your eyes offers complete coverage of protecting mucosal surfaces to help prevent spread of the virus. Dr. Deborah Birx recommended wearing face shields for the same reason. I wonder if wearing goggles or other eye protection will become a future mandate as well?

In the same interview, Fauci seemed to imply that we should be wearing masks for flu as well as the coronavirus. “It is inevitable that we’re going to have some degree of flu,” Fauci told ABC News. “I’m hoping that the wearing of masks and other coverings are going to not only protect us against COVID-19, but also help protect us against influenza.”

Does this mean masks are going to be with us forever? When can we take them off? What are the metrics by which we can make this determination? What does life look like on the other side of the virus?

These are things we are not told. It’s easier to make a sacrifice when working towards a goal if we know when the goal has been reached. This is, in my opinion, important information that is being left out of the mask discussion. People can deal with bad news, but it’s no information that is harder to accept. Real leadership brings people together to collectively work towards achieving a goal rather than causing division or leaving them in the dark without information.

Educating people on the benefits of masks is not a bad first step, although suddenly dropping a shipment of masks on everyone’s doorstep with a “fact sheet” inside that sounds like a parental lecture that is “written for a layperson” comes off as Washington treating us like children. Combine that with more local governments forcing people to wear masks and it’s not a compelling way of persuading people to band together on the issue.

If instead, we combined the information on the benefits of masks along with a clear plan and guidelines for how we can measure the success of defeating the virus, then we would know what we are working towards. We also would have the benefit of seeing progress towards that goal as we hit predetermined milestones put in place to measure our efforts along the way.

Do the masks come off when new virus cases drop to a specific number? Are the mandates lifted when hospitalization rates drop to a specific number? Can we lose the masks when a vaccine is developed and in use? Show me a detailed plan with milestones to shoot for. I think that is something that people would more readily accept and band together to work to achieve.

Masks for All S. 4339

© 2020 Ian Smith. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express written consent from Ian Smith.

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About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of FedSmith.com. He enjoys writing about current topics that affect the federal workforce.

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