Los Angeles County's new mask mandate is receiving pushback from individuals, businesses, and cities. West Covina, Torrance, Manhattan Beach, and El Segundo are saying the order is overkill. Critics argue the mask requirement is bad for the economy, and it creates confusion by setting a different standard from the state.
Public health officials say that the move is necessary to clamp down on a new surge in COVID cases, adding that wearing masks indoors could help avoid more drastic steps later.
This debate comes a month after California lifted most of its COVID restrictions. Dr. Sean Young, an associate professor of emergency medicine and informatics at UC Irvine, tells KCRW that public health officials need to hone their messaging to convince people that wearing masks is a good thing.
KCRW: Did the state jump the gun by lifting the mask mandate too soon?
Dr. Sean Young: “At this point, I've learned that anything is too soon. I think masks should just become a mainstream part of public health.”
Health officials thought relaxing mask rules might encourage more people to get vaccinated against COVID. What do you make of this approach?
“This was a poor use of psychology. By flip-flopping on masks, saying, ‘You don't need to wear it because things are better and you can get vaccinated,’ and now saying, ‘You do need to,’ that confuses people. When you confuse people, you lose their trust, and they lose faith in you. And they don't do what you want them to do.
If you're trying to get people to wear seatbelts, you don't say, ‘Deaths from car crashes are up, so let's wear seatbelts this month.’ When things are looking great next month, you don’t say, ‘Deaths are down, so let's take a break and stop wearing seatbelts for a bit.’
Corporations are actually best at this. They do it by accentuating the good, not highlighting the bad. They build it up in a way that's easy and rewarding to use. They market it by saying how it's going to change your life for the better. That's what we need to do with masks.”
You’re suggesting we need to keep the message consistent as long as we're in this fight.
“Absolutely. It might sound like a good idea to say, ‘Let's give people a break, and let's give them a reward because rates have dropped down.’ But it's bad psychology. If you want people to be able to do something, it needs to become a routine. It needs to be something consistent.
Even if you reward people by saying, ‘You don't have to do this thing that we want you to do because we're going to save it until later when we really need to,’ that makes that behavior worse. It makes it undesirable. It makes it so that people will try to avoid it. What we want is to normalize this.”
Is the state government in a position to reimpose mask mandates, or do you feel like people have had it?
“It's a difficult question at this point. It may have to start from the local jurisdiction — your local health department.
But in general, I think we should be recommending mask wearing, and having mask wearing become a mainstream part of society and public health.”
You mean we should use masks going forward with no expiration date?
“I think going forward, no expiration date. I think if we’re outside and in settings that are not crowded, that's a different story.
One thing is that we need to make it easier for people to wear masks. We need to have a call for engineers and product designers to develop masks that can be more comfortable, nicer looking, and cooler to wear. Then we need to band together for public health.
I was not in support of masks before the pandemic. But since I started wearing masks last March, I have not gotten sick at all. It's made me believe that there's some power here around masks and prevention.
In the field of public health, we should be studying and thinking about the long-term implications of this. COVID is going to be here for a while, but there will be future infectious diseases and pandemics coming. This can help prepare us and improve the field of public health.”