We are economists at the University of Alaska Anchorage who write in strong support of the doctors and health care professionals who recently urged Gov. Mike Dunleavy to mandate face masks in businesses where social distancing is not practical. In its simplest economic terms, the costs and inconvenience of wearing a mask are trivial, but the potential benefits are large. As we’ve seen in past epidemics and the current pandemic, if people are scared of contracting COVID-19 from others who are not wearing a mask, they will avoid public places. Within an economy, one person’s spending is another person’s income. If people continue to stay home and reduce their spending, the economic decline will continue, as will dependence on government support. People will start spending more when they feel safe, and mandating that people wear masks is a simple step in the right direction
The decision to wear a face mask is not merely a symbolic gesture or virtue signaling. There is credible scientific evidence in top medical journals that wearing a face mask helps reduce disease transmission. That is why most public health organizations and state agencies recommend that people wear them in public. Even if these studies were later proved to be incorrect, the costs of wearing a face mask are minimal. On the other hand, the potential economic and social benefits are substantial in terms of lives saved, illnesses prevented, jobs preserved and businesses remaining open. Economic activity will recover only when consumers feel confident that they can safely resume normal activities and reducing the spread of the virus is essential for this to happen.
We do not make this recommendation to mandate face masks lightly. We are strong supporters of an individual’s right to choose, and preserving a free society requires a healthy dose of caution when considering whether the government should impinge upon those freedoms. However, when one person’s behavior potentially harms or kills another, then there should be an informed discussion that evaluates the benefits and costs of government intervention. That is why people generally agree that individuals are not free to decide whether to drive under the influence of alcohol or yell “fire” in a crowded theater.
How might this mandate be enforced? We are certainly not suggesting that people should be arrested or fined whenever they enter a store without a mask. Public health officials could hold businesses accountable as they already do with enforcing other health codes. Even if the state doesn't enforce the mandate, it is still likely to have a significant effect. The law will make it easier for businesses to ask patrons to wear a mask, and gives people an "excuse" to wear one in environments where social pressure might act as a deterrent.
We commend Gov. Dunleavy and his team for their early actions in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, which has undoubtedly saved lives, reduced the strain on hospitals, and allowed businesses to start reopening. The benefits of these shared sacrifices were likely much greater than their associated economic costs, and our civic leaders demonstrated political courage in encouraging Alaskans to band together in the face of the pandemic. Unfortunately, the number of cases has been increasing recently and threatens those hard-won benefits. Until a vaccine is widely available, we are all going to have to make sacrifices to keep each other healthy and our economy going. Of all the tools at the governor’s disposal, mandating face masks is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to effectively reduce transmission, especially when combined with hand washing, social distancing, widespread testing and contact tracing. Alaskans have made tremendous sacrifices to successfully reduce transmission and save lives; it would be tragic if those efforts go to waste as the economy reopens.
All signatories are economists at the University of Alaska Anchorage. James Murphy serves as Rasmuson Chair of Economics. Kevin Berry is an assistant professor; Hannah Hennighausen is a postdoctoral researcher; Alexander James is an associate professor; Brett Watson is a postdoctoral researcher; and Qiujie Zheng is an associate professor.
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