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It's time to make masks mandatory
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Missoulian editorial

It's time to make masks mandatory

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Cases of COVID-19 are rising fast, reaching their highest levels yet in Missoula and in Montana. It's exactly what we all feared, and yet, too many people are not doing their part to stop the spread of coronavirus in our community. 

It's time for Missoula's public officials and business leaders to make face masks mandatory. In public buildings, in stores and in workplaces where distancing is impossible or impractical, all employees with regular public contact and their customers should wear a face covering. 

Wearing a face covering is a simple, affordable, perhaps mildly inconvenient step to help prevent the spread of coronavirus and protect our community, as well as reduce the potential need for another major lockdown that forces businesses to close and lay off workers, driving the economy deeper into recession.

It’s an easy choice, surely. Yet it’s a proven prevention measure too many Montanans are still not taking, leading more health experts, public institutions and yes, private businesses, too, to begin calling for face masks to be made mandatory.

Last week Missoula city and county officials formally requested that the local public health officer issue an order requiring people to wear face coverings in licensed businesses. The letter, signed by Missoula Mayor John Engen and co-signed by Missoula County Commissioners Josh Slotnick, David Strohmaier and Juanita Vero, also asks the health board to meet to discuss the proposed requirement.

Also last week, the University of Montana shared its mask policy, taking pains to note that it is subject to change depending on community input. Currently, the university is working on setting expectations and creating a culture of mask-wearing, but has stopped short of explicitly requiring face masks on campus.

While enforcement will doubtlessly present a challenge, we hope the university makes mask-wearing mandatory. As one of Missoula’s top employers and largest institutions, UM could set a good example for others as well as make a strong statement about how much it values the health and well-being of its students, staff and faculty. A mask mandate would no doubt set many prospective students’ and their families’ minds at ease as they weigh the risks of returning to campus this fall.

By now it should be apparent that the pandemic’s appearance in Montana is no springtime blip. Rather, it’s seeing a summertime surge months ahead of the predicted “second wave.”

Last week the number of confirmed cases in the state reached new highs. At last count, the case count approached 1,100, with more than 100 total hospitalizations and 22 deaths. In Missoula County, the number of new daily cases began climbing after statewide Phase 2 restrictions replaced more stringent Phase 1 restrictions, and in the span of one week, the number of positive cases nearly doubled, from 54 to 98 cases.

In addition to maintaining at least 6 feet of physical distance from others, thorough hand-washing and not touching one’s eyes, nose and mouth, wearing a face covering is an effective way to prevent “community spread” of the virus. And since symptoms of COVID-19 may not be apparent for up to two weeks after infection, it’s important to limit others’ exposure at all times.

Goldman Sachs recently reported that its analysts found that “wearing face coverings has a significant impact on coronavirus outcomes.” Further, they estimated that a nationwide face mask mandate would increase mask-wearing by 15%, with a corresponding drop in new daily cases of coronavirus of 1%. And this, they concluded would save the national economy from a 5% hit to the gross domestic product — in the neighborhood of $1 trillion.

The list of states requiring face coverings in most indoor public spaces is steadily growing. Still, many local and state governments have been reluctant to go so far as to issue a face mask order. They are no doubt hoping their residents will voluntarily make the right choice. The smart choice. The considerate choice.

As community leaders throughout Montana discuss requiring face masks, it’s increasingly apparent that urgent action is needed. Missoula residents can be thankful that many of our fellow residents, including local business owners, are opting to make their employees’ and customers’ health a priority. They have set up hand sanitizing stations at their front doors, instituted guidelines to ensure social distancing, and even offered face masks to customers free of charge.

These business deserve the ongoing support of their customers and the wider community. As the economy continues to stumble along, they need this support more than ever — and each dollar spent becomes more powerful in determining which enterprises will survive the pandemic.

Similarly, consumers can use their influence to politely remind their favorite businesses that they expect all employees and customers to wear masks. Just as we expect restaurant employees to wash their hands frequently and follow other basic health rules, all businesses should be expected to help protect their customers’ health.

And all of us can encourage our loved ones to wear face masks as well, whether they’re planning to shop at a local business or visit any other public place. Ask them what they have to lose by wearing one, and remind them of all there is to gain. Urge them to make the right choice, whether it's required of them or not. 

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Editor Gwen Florio and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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