Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has issued no executive order requiring customers or store workers to wear masks. The choice is yours – at least for now – and you have the right to stroll the aisles of a grocery store without a mask.
Sociologically, this would be a fascinating topic of study. Are men more likely to go maskless than women? At what age are people more likely to wear a mask? Are people who wear glasses less likely to wear masks, because of fogging? Of those people who aren't wearing masks, what percentage would wear one if they were given one for free? And yes, it would be fair to study the correlation between political affiliation and mask-wearing behavior.
But setting politics aside, we'd argue that the science regarding the benefits of face masks is rock solid: You wear a mask to protect other people, which means that wearing a mask shows respect and concern for those around you.
The above argument hinges on the established fact that some people who contract COVID-19 don't develop symptoms but can nevertheless spread the disease. At a now-infamous choir practice in Washington, one infected-but-asymptomatic singer spread COVID-19 to more than 40 people, and two of them died.
Granted, those people were in close proximity for more than two hours, and the act of singing puts a lot of respiratory droplets into the air – far more than one might encounter while waiting in a checkout line behind a maskless shopper.
But ask yourself this question: If the shopper behind you sneezes, do you look to see whether they are wearing a mask? Of course you do. Or, if you feel a tickle in your throat as you shop, do you try to suppress the urge to cough until you can distance yourself from other shoppers? We'd hope so.
Still, we can't deny that to some people, the act of wearing a mask sends a message of fear, that somehow the virus is winning. For others, the decision not to wear a mask is an expression of individual liberty, of freedom of expression – rights that are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
We'd remind those freedom-defenders of an expression that has been attributed to historical figures including Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Stuart Mill and even President Lincoln; namely, that, “Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins.”
Today, every time someone sneezes or coughs, they are essentially swinging their fists – and in boxing terms, the COVID-19 virus has a very long reach. MIT scientist Lydia Bourouiba used high-speed cameras to determine that a sneeze expels droplets at speeds in excess of 100 mph. Those droplets travel as far as 27 feet and can linger in the air for several minutes.
That's a scary reality, and when combined with the worst global pandemic in more than a century, it adds up to what will likely be a permanent shift in how humans interact.
In other words, get used to seeing people wearing masks. Yes, that's sad. People say a lot with their faces, and a friendly smile can speak volumes.
But for now, we want Minnesota to “re-open” as safely as possible We want to be able to eat out again. We want to invite friends over for a barbecue. We want kids to be able to go to summer camp, to swimming pools. We want people to be able to worship together.
While the timeline for a return to such “normal” activities remains uncertain, we believe people's willingness to wear masks will not slow that timeline, and it might speed it up.