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Businesses Shouldn’t Have to Be the Mask Police

If there is any consensus around how to limit the spread of Covid-19, it is that everyone should be wearing a face mask in public. It’s a simple thing, and yet it’s an issue many state governments don’t want to touch.

In the absence of any sort of a national plan, companies have tried to step into the void. As my colleague Bill Saporito so eloquently noted recently, Walmart is currently providing greater leadership on Covid-19 than the CDC. With its national mask mandate, Starbucks is doing more to blunt the impact of the pandemic than the governors of the 18 states that still do not require masks in public. In response, front-line workers at these companies and others have faced threats of actual violence and even death. 

While it’s admirable that business are trying to do the right thing here, why should it be on the shoulders of already-stretched small businesses to enact basic public health measures? Enforcement of public health and safety is the responsibility of everyone, of course, but it should be a primary concern of state and local governments. 

This is a cross that retailers should not have to bear at any time, but especially now, when every day is an existential struggle for many. In early July, the Retail Industry Leaders Industry Association, a trade association based in Arlington, Virginia, asked for help. In a letter to the National Governors Association, retail leaders called on state governments to step in and mandate that every citizen wear a mask when shopping or in any public space.

Right now 32 states have statewide mask mandates in place; the ones that don’t all have Republican governors. Something that should be basic public issue has become polticized, at the detriment to Americans everywhere. The absence of a clear, unambiguous message of mask wearing is a void into which everyone can pour their own political views, one in which irresponsible people argue that wearing a mask is nothing more than a personal preference. 

That argument just doesn’t hold. We don’t allow personal preference to trump other public health concerns. If someone walks into your store without wearing pants, you don’t just say “oh well, she’s just exercising her constitutional rights of free expression.” If someone starts punching your employees, your reaction isn’t “well, you better hire private security to ensure your customers have a better experience.” 

You expect a level of personal responsibility. And if that isn’t met, you expect law enforcement to step in. But in reality, that’s not happening–not even in states that have mask requirements. 

Take my home state of Kansas. Governor Laura Kelly issued a statewide mask order on July, but left it up to the individual counties–of which Kansas has 105, in a state of about three million people–to enforce. Less than 20 percent of these county governments have said they will enforce mask orders, but, they say, if an individual business wants to do it, God bless.

This isn’t the time for the country to have a states rights debate, nor is it the time for the country to be weak-willed toward public safety. And it especially shouldn’t be a time when business are expected to do the job our democratically-elected officials should be doing. Real solutions for small businesses owners shouldn’t involve asking them to perform all the functions of a basic functioning civil society. 

Mandatory mask orders do not completely solve the problem, of course. Even states that have them do not see full compliance. But creating new norms takes time. And norms become norms because everyone does them, everywhere, and not just when you happen to be walking into a Walmart. The best time for our government to require that everyone wear a mask was five months ago. But the second best time is right now. 

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