How would a statewide mask mandate be enforced?

Gov. Walz is expected to announce a statewide mask mandate this afternoon. There is evidence that masks are effective in fighting Covid-19, and there is evidence that they are not. I am not an epidemiologist and don’t know which is right, but I wear one myself.

But just because doing something is a good idea, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is a good idea for government to force people to do it. Ask yourself how, in practice, this mask mandate would be enforced?

A mandate in name only

One possibility is that the mandate wouldn’t actually be enforced, that it would be a sort of invitation which people could decline if they so wished. As I wrote recently:

From May 17th, Metro Transit has required passengers aboard buses and trains to wear face coverings. As the Star Tribune reported:

Metro Transit said it will “enforce” the edict by displaying the requirement on its website, on board vehicles and at stations and bus stops.

Compliance remains voluntary. No one will be fined or denied service if they fail to wear a mask, said Metro Transit Spokesman Howie Padilla.

Metro Transit, which began encouraging face coverings in April, said the requirement will remain in place until further notice. The transit agency said it may take additional steps if there is “ongoing, widespread noncompliance,” though it didn’t elaborate on what those steps might entail.

My experience of both the light rail and buses since the edict came in is that noncompliance is both ongoing and widespread. Yet nothing whatsoever is done about that. Mask wearing remains effectively voluntary despite this edict.

Gov. Walz has form on this. In an article on the recent riots in the current issue of our magazine, Thinking Minnesota, my colleague, Tom Steward, and I write how at a press conference on the morning of Friday, May 29th, after three nights of rioting:

Walz adopted a Churchillian pose: “You won’t see that tonight,” he promised. “There will be no lack of leadership and there will be no lack of response on the table.” When asked if he would consider imposing martial law, he said, “Certainly, all those tools are there.” That afternoon, Walz declared an 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. curfew for both Minneapolis and St. Paul that would be in effect on Friday, May 29 and Saturday, May 30.

But, like Metro Transit’s mask mandate, the curfew was simply an invitation not to riot: it wasn’t enforced. The result was a further night of violence and destruction. Webster’s defines ‘mandate’ as “an authoritative command”. There is little authoritative or commanding in invitations and requests. Such mandates aren’t mandates at all so why bother with them?

The costs of mask mandate enforcement 

Lets assume, for a moment, that Gov. Walz does decide that, not only will he impose a mask mandate but that he will enforce it too. The outcome will be a dramatic increase in the instances of law enforcement apprehending people for a minor offence. Do we really want that right now?

The Minnesota Reformer recently reported how the area around the George Floyd memorial is a no-go zone for cops. Given the mood of the city, who in their right mind thinks it would be a good idea to have MPD going in there to apprehend people who aren’t wearing their masks as mandated? The video below shows what enforcing a mask mandate actually means. Who thinks we need to see more of this in Minnesota?

Or are we just not going to enforce the mandate in certain areas? In that case we don’t have a statewide mandate, we have a mandate for some parts of the state. This exacerbates a problem I wrote about recently, namely that with arbitrary law making and enforcement, two Minnesotas are emerging.

Wearing a mask might be a good idea, but forcing people to wear them will bring costs of its own.

John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.