Prof. Nicholas L. Wilson
Prof. Nicholas L. Wilson

Should You Wear a Mask? Yes.

Wearing a mask is a smart social investment.

By Prof. Nicholas L. Wilson ’99 | April 28, 2020

The U.S. is losing millions of jobs each week, a rate that we have not witnessed in the past 50 years or, frankly, ever. Estimates suggest that the current unemployment rate is around 13% and some economists predict that soon we will reach 20% unemployment, with a “COVID Depression” looking more and more likely. As displayed in Figure 1, the increase in those filing for unemployment insurance looks preposterously large compared to historical data. So far, at least 30 million workers have lost their jobs, with nearly 4 million workers filing initial claims for unemployment during the most recent week of unemployment data, the week of April 25.

Throwing millions of people out of work, and cutting the hours of millions more, represents an unparalleled economic disaster. But public health experts, macroeconomists, and people who have spent their careers thinking about these issues generally agree that “pausing the economy” is the right thing to do. The potential loss of life from COVID-19 is so great that it justifies sacrificing our jobs, our means of paying the rent, and our means of putting food on the table.

Wear a mask, the cost of doing otherwise is too great

If you buy into this logic, you should wear a mask every time you leave the house—it’s a simple, inexpensive step with minimal costs and clear benefits in reducing the spread of the disease. Indeed, it would be very strange to sacrifice huge chunks of the economy, deprive people of their jobs, interrupt the education of our children, and endure the hardship of self-quarantine but refuse to wear a mask. 

Paradoxically, however, levels of mask wearing in most of the U.S. are very, very low. An informal survey conducted through my front window in Portland over the past week reveals that approximately 3% of individuals walking, jogging, or bicycling are wearing a mask. Photos from New York City reveal possibly higher levels of mask-wearing, yet these photos typically are selected by journalists to highlight a particular issue, and should not be suggested as the results of a representative survey. Of course my window-based survey includes some margin of error, but it’s obvious we can do better. Fortunately, we can change this. Here are three easy steps each of us can take to promote mask-wearing.

1. Wear a homemade mask every time you leave your home.

When you wear a mask, it helps nudge the social norm towards the expectation that everyone wears a mask. In this sense, wearing a mask is “infectious” in that it encourages others to wear a mask.

Epidemiologists talk about R0—the expected number of infections generated by a new infection. Research indicates that R0 for COVID-19 likely is between three and six.

For a social norm of mask-wearing to take hold, all we need is that R0 for mask-wearing to be greater than one. That is, when you wear your mask outside of your home, if it encourages just one other person to wear a mask, the norm will change. Over the course of a month, you’ll induce many people to wear masks, yielding a cascade of benefits to you and your community.

2. Ensure that masks are widely available.

The first step will increase demand for masks. What about the supply? The federal government, state and local governments, businesses, and civic society groups should do everything in their power to make basic masks available to us all. The government of Turkey is distributing five masks per week to each of its citizens. This seems like a reasonable goal. In the interim, while N95 masks should be reserved for essential, frontline healthcare workers, we should make homemade masks.

Are you handy with sewing? Do you have a stash of materials at home? Make masks for your social network. Make masks for local charitable organizations to distribute to those in need. Basic masks can and should be as widely available as anything in our society. They are very cheap to produce and yield a tremendous social benefit.

Never sewed anything in your life? Do not own a needle, thread, or fabric? No worries. Make masks out of everyday items such as dish towels, hair ties, rubber bands, t-shirts, scarves, or even boxer briefs.

3. Demand rapid, clear, scientific information about the pandemic.

Most national governments have committed major missteps in their response to the pandemic, often playing down the danger and squandering precious weeks while the virus spread unchecked. In the U.S., a second key mistake was telling us that we should not wear masks, masks cannot protect us, and that masks are only for healthcare workers.

The pandemic has been accompanied by what officials at the World Health Organization refer to as an “infodemic” of misinformation and disinformation, often spread through social media. In this environment of confusion, it is critical that we seek out the latest reliable information about COVID-19, demand transparency, and hold politicians and other authorities accountable for false or misleading statements. Although many of us may be tired of thinking about the pandemic and about the government response, tuning out is not the answer. We need information just as much as we need masks.

In summary, it does not make sense to choose to “pause the economy” yet choose to not take this simple precaution. If we are willing to inflict such immense damage on our economy, the least we can go is wear a mask.


Prof. Nicholas Wilson is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics at Reed College. He studies the interaction between human behavior and pandemics.  He has advised the United States government and governments of countries in sub-Saharan Africa on health policy.

Tags: Covid-19, Health/Wellness, Professors