Updated: Oct 20, 2020
The Florida governor moved the state into Phase 3 reopening status on September 25. Nearly three-fourths of the entire state of Florida had been diligently masking up based on widespread adoption of local county- and city-wide-mask-wearing ordinances. In dramatic fashion, Florida's infections had soared 1,000 percent from mid-April to its peak July 17. The great mask-up had led to dramatically decreasing Florida’s infection rate (“flattening the curve”) by September, finally.
As part of the Phase 3 action, the governor also barred fines and penalties for folks who opt out of masking up on September 25. Now, counties are facing expirations of the very mask mandates that flattened Florida's curve, and the decision as to whether to extend some form of newly worded mask ordinances.
Let's look at the numbers. Statistically-significant computer forecasting models show that when 60-to-80 percent of a given population masks up, the curve flattens down, as achieved by Florida, finally, in September. Since Phase 3 has begun with "limited social distancing" and some counties' mask mandates already have expired, Florida infections have increased nearly 50%, meaning the curve has turned upward. That does not mean at all scientists are pushing for lockdowns. It does mean infections among counties also are on the rise, some more than others. Collier County's daily average infection rate for example has increased 87% since entering Phase 3, and that is with a mask mandate, based on an honor system, still in place.
Since September 25, SNS has accounted for at least 60% of the Florida population, still masking up via mask mandates. As that number drops further, the curve begins to swing upward, as seen across Florida state and unevenly among individual counties. “If you get down to 30 or 40% [of people wearing masks], you get almost no [beneficial] effect at all,” said Guy-Philippe Goldstein, a French economist and study collaborator, as reported by Forbes as early as May 2020.
Wearing masks along with social distancing is the only way to flatten the curve of infections as populations await widely available treatments and vaccines, according to public health experts and the CDC.
Still, mass communication and lead-by-example mixed-messaging from the White House conflicts with published, peer-reviewed, scientific study findings, with CDC and WHO guidance, and thus has damaged the ability of U.S. geographic areas to gain control over the epidemic. The U.S. has consistently failed to compete with other countries that have successfully taken down the virus, simply through maintaining a critical mass of the population masking up and social distancing, as required to flatten the curve. Not all politicians use this professional statistical data--as non-scientists they do not calculate "per capita" as required to compare "apples to apples". That means countries are compared without accounting for huge differences in population sizes, thus skewing the numbers. Per Capita allows quality comparisons of like areas with like areas.
While anti-mask conservative media point to, and criticize, an early lack of mask guidance as a reason to now eschew masks, the CDC has long since updated its guidelines, dealing with a U.S. culture in which masking up was foreign and medics needed what little face-covers were available. Rising infections and a clearer understanding that both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission of this new virus occurs was critical to that shift. Masks are a population-infection mitigator primarily, and an individual protective device secondarily. Masks keep infected shedders from shedding and infecting others unwittingly.
The confusion has led the United States to become beset by wasteful lawsuits against mask ordinances and anti-mask demonstrations. But just as the constitution allows local jurisdictions to protect public health by mandating motorcycle helmets and safety belts, so too are mask mandates constitutional, particularly until effective treatments and vaccines become widely available.
Extending masks to hold a minimum of 60 percent to 80 percent of Florida's state, county, and/or city populations masking up is necessary to keep the Florida curve flat until widely available treatments and vaccines become available. No fines necessary, no folks medically challenged wearing a mask necessary, and no anti-maskers necessary. Florida could reward mask wearing with good P.R. as a show of solidarity, de-incentivize fighting with those unable or unwilling to wear masks, and be proud of those willing to take up the slack. Providing mass communications as to exactly why masks are not forever also will help.
Rosalie Marion Bliss, MA, is former scientific-findings writer and publicist and communications specialist for USDA’s chief scientific research agency. Bliss writes about research-based news and editorials during the pandemic.