National mask order could prevent lockdown redux, Goldman Sachs says

The lockdowns in March and April aimed at saving lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic caused massive job losses, stalled the housing market, and plunged the nation into the worst economic contraction since the Great Depression.

Get ready for a replay if mask-wearing doesn’t become a national requirement, according to Goldman Sachs Chief Economic Jan Hatzius.

“A national face mask mandate could potentially substitute for renewed lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP,” Hatzius wrote.

Cumulative COVID-19 infections will grow 17.3% per week without a mask mandate but only 7.3% with one, and deaths will grow 29% per week without a mask mandate but only 16% with one, Hatzius said in his report.

But don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for a federal requirement. More than 75 countries have national mandates requiring the use of masks. That includes all the countries in a list of the world’s biggest economies, except the U.S. Americans have been living under a patchwork of regional policies, Hatzius said in the report.

“So will the U.S. adopt a national face mask mandate?” Hatzius said. “This is uncertain, partly because masks have become such a politically and culturally charged issue. However, even in the absence of a national mandate, state and local authorities might well broaden mandates in ways that ultimately mimic the impact of a national mandate.”

The U.S. accounts for 26% of the world’s COVID-19 infections and 25% of deaths from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University data on Tuesday. That’s despite having only 4.3% of the globe’s population and an advanced health care system.

In the areas of the U.S. where masks are the norm, COVID-19 infection rates are the lowest, Hatzius said. One of the deadliest traits of the COVID-19 pandemic, making it different from previous public health emergencies, is the asymptomatic transmission.

People who don’t look or feel sick can be shedding the virus and infecting people throughout their community, according to White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts.

“Face mask usage is highest in the Northeast, where the virus situation has improved dramatically in recent months, and generally lower in the South, where the numbers have deteriorated,” Hatzius said. “For example, only about 40% of respondents in Arizona say that they ‘always’ wear face masks in public, compared with nearly 80% in Massachusetts.”

Hatzius doesn’t mention, in his 15-page report, the main impediment to a national mask requirement that might prevent another lockdown: President Donald Trump, who disregards the federal government’s recommendation to wear a mask.

In May, during a visit to a Ford factory in Michigan that makes ventilators, Trump refused to follow the statewide order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requiring people wear facial covering while in enclosed public spaces. He told reporters he had worn a mask during a portion of his visit, but took it off during the part of the tour, still indoors, where he was visible to the press.

“I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it,” Trump told the press pool, showing them the blue mask stamped with the presidential seal he held in his hand.

The White House has said that Trump believes it’s “the personal choice of any individual as to whether to wear a mask or not.” Trump also has said he doesn’t want lockdowns again, although those are decided by state and local authorities, not the federal government.

In Trump’s case, he claims to know for sure he doesn’t have COVID-19 because he and everyone who comes in contact with him is screened using rapid tests such as the one manufactured by Abbott Laboratories. It takes between 5 and 13 minutes to get results.

Although, by Abbot’s own admission, the test isn’t perfect. It accurately detects infection with COVID-19 about 95% of the time, based on tests performed on samples from 256 patients, the company said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends Americans wear face masks in public settings where social distancing is hard to maintain, “especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” In April, First Lady Melania Trump released a video encouraging Americans to do so.

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