The consensus on masking has shifted this winter. Whereas before the enforced wisdom was that all masks provide protection, experts and infectious disease experts have begun to sing a different tune: you must wear a medical-grade mask to have any real security from COVID-19 — and cloth masks are to be avoided.
“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations and should not be considered an acceptable form of face covering,” said CNN medical analyst and former Planned Parenthood President Dr. Leana Wen in December.
Before that consensus shift, the message in many areas of the country, particularly at colleges, was that cloth masks are actually the best choice because they are the most environmentally friendly option. Some colleges advised their students to opt for cloth masks while in most cases not requiring them as part of their official masking policies. These preferences lasted throughout 2020 and sometimes into 2021.
At Syracuse University, Christine Weber, a spokesperson for the campus safety department, told the student newspaper that “Faculty, staff and students at the University … will be encouraged to use (reusable masks) in lieu of disposable masks.”
The student author of that August 2020 article, Harrison Vogt, declared: “a disposable mask over a reusable mask is not the real responsible choice…. If wearing a mask is the responsible act, the environment must be considered when choosing a mask.”
At the University of Colorado Boulder, its Environmental Center still advises students to use reusable masks, saying: “Reusing cloth masks helps limit the hefty amount of microplastics that are present in the disposable masks that are worsening pollution.”
The center provides students a link to a local small business that sells cloth masks, saying: “Instead of choosing to use the single-use disposable masks, opt for a reusable face mask, and even better choose to support a local store/artist near you that sells them!”
That guidance was originally written in November 2020, and the Environmental Center is sticking by those words despite the medical acknowledgement that those masks never did anything.
After The American Spectator contacted the University of Colorado about this guidance, the university acknowledged the issue and added to its guidance: “Click here to get the latest guidance from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) about masks and mask usage.” Yet the university’s Environmental Center kept up its guidance on masking, including advising students to “consider sewing your own face mask to add a unique mask to your outfit” “if you have extra scrapes [sic] lying around.”
The page the center linked to does not include the CDC’s new guidance to “wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.”
The University of Michigan was even stronger in its insistence on cloth masks. It went so far as to post signs outside of classrooms which explicitly said: “Cloth face covering is required.” The signs were created by the university’s office of Environment, Health, and Safety.
This was not at the beginning of the pandemic. In fact, at least some of the University of Michigan’s official signage outside of classrooms that said cloth masks are required was posted until at least January of 2022. Seth Guikema, a professor of risk analysis at the University of Michigan, complained about this signage on Jan. 12, saying: “I am violating @UMich masking policy according to the sign outside my classroom. I wear a FFP2 or KN95, not a cloth mask. The masking policy is behind the times, and signs like this are not helpful. A colleague stopped wearing their N95 because of one of these signs.” (Note, however, that he is wearing a rainbow cloth mask in his Twitter profile picture.)
I am violating @UMich masking policy according to the sign outside my classroom. I wear a FFP2 or KN95, not a cloth mask. The masking policy is behind the times, and signs like this are not helpful. A colleague stopped wearing their N95 because of one of these signs. pic.twitter.com/mjcJlA4uAE
— Seth Guikema (@SDGuikema) January 12, 2022
Danielle Sheen, the executive director of the office of the office of Environment, Health, and Safety, told The American Spectator that the signs that say a cloth face mask is required “are likely older signs that were not updated.”
The newer signs, she said, say “‘face covering’ instead of any specific type of face covering.”
The phenomenon of colleges encouraging students to wear cloth face masks went well beyond these three universities. When students returned to campus in the fall of 2020, the majority of top universities provided students with COVID starter kits which included a set of cloth masks. For example, the University of Virginia provided students with two cloth masks, the University of Niagara supplied three cotton masks, and Bucknell University provided two reusable masks. The University of Michigan, meanwhile, provided students with two washable masks and a bandana — which was even more useless on top of useless.
At least one university explicitly required the use of cloth face masks. Northern Michigan University’s “Cloth Face Masks and Exemptions, 2021-22” states: “Students must wear a cloth face mask in all indoor public spaces.” It is unclear whether this was motivated by the environment and the university has since reversed course and now requires students to wear a N95, KN95, or KN94 mask.
There are multiple lessons to be learned here. First, this is another example of the recurring error of creating poor policy because it sounds like it’s good for the environment. Sure, creating a net-zero carbon emissions economy by 2050 sounds like it’s good for the environment, but it can only end in economic decay. Raising fuel standards sounds good, but it will make it harder for the average American to afford a car. Getting rid of all your nuclear power plants might sound good environmentally, but it doesn’t ring the same once an authoritarian tries to use it as leverage to get away with invading a sovereign nation with 44 million people. In this case, every single cloth face mask was another few cubic inches of space in a landfill and another person unprotected from COVID-19. When the environment gets involved, elites will put their blinders on and ignore all other detrimental effects.
This also lends more credence to the view that many COVID precautions were pure theater and were not backed up with scientific evidence before being imposed on the public. Plexiglass? Useless. Disinfecting surfaces? Useless. Wearing gloves? Useless. Cloth masks? Useless. Why didn’t scientists perform randomized and controlled studies on cloth masks right away? Why was there the sudden rush to: ‘cloth masks will protect you from the coronavirus and don’t dare say otherwise’?
Scientists and universities ought to ask themselves why they took so long to reach scientific conclusions on masking and instead only focused on confirming the narrative and protecting the environment.
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