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Tina Casey headshot

Uncharted Territory in COVID-19 Crisis: Thanksgiving Travel Muddies the Mask Mandate Waters

By Tina Casey
Thanksgiving Travel

As millions of Americans ignore public health warnings to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s worth remembering that the health and safety of millions more is in the hands of state governors and legislators who have failed to establish life-saving mask mandates to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Instead, local business leaders are left to their own devices, pleading with their communities - and those who insist on their Thanksgiving travel plans - to simply wear a mask.

The curious case of Idaho

Some governors have ramped up statewide COVID-19 prevention rules in advance of the Thanksgiving travel season.

However, in the absence of national leadership on universal mask wearing, the patchwork of state-based efforts has fallen far short.

The state of Idaho is a case in point. All during the COVID-19 outbreak, Idaho Governor Brad Little has resisted calls for a statewide mask mandate. Even as cases have spiked in Idaho and nationwide in the runup to the Thanksgiving travel season, Little has continued to advocate for voluntary mask wearing, leaving mandates up to local governments and health districts.

By November 13 the state’s healthcare system was already nearing a crisis, partly because many health care workers were out sick or quarantined.

Little did reimpose some restrictions on social gatherings on November 13, and he called up the National Guard to assist with screening and testing. However, he still failed to make mask wearing mandatory statewide.

By November 22, the local television station KTVB reported that the state’s two-week rolling average of new cases had increased to 1,358. There appears to be no end in sight. On November 23 KTVB reported an additional 1,437 new confirmed cases, and 190 new probable cases.

Local business leaders plead for help confronting COVID-19

As the Thanksgiving travel season began to get under way last Friday, a group of 12 Idaho CEO’s issued a public plea for universal mask wearing.

“The recent surge in cases is overrunning our hospitals and clinics,” they wrote. “The pandemic has had a significant impact on our economy, our education systems, and our own mental health. We all want things to be normal; coming together to overcome this incredible obstacle is the only way to get there.”

The CEO’s also describe the mask mandates and other COVID-19 prevention measures they have established to protect their workers, emphasizing that their own experience demonstrates that “consistently following simple safety practices can prevent infections and keep businesses running.”

Unfortunately, a mere letter is no match for the attention-grabbing actions of anti-mask protestors, who have been especially active in Idaho.

Among the instigators is Ammon Bundy, a nationally known figure whose purported advocacy for civil disobedience took form during an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, in 2016.

Such behavior has been encouraged by President Trump, whose campaign schedule in the runup to Election Day has been described as a weeks-long series of COIVD-19 super-spreader events.

As Thanksgiving travel goes unabated, give thanks for masks

The CEO letter does raise a point about the ability of individuals to foster the public welfare through their personal choices, and there are some interesting parallels with action on climate change.

One of those parallels is a federal leadership vacuum. In the case of COVID-19, President Trump’s failure to lead a national COVID-19 response has left CEOs howling into the wind. The Thanksgiving travel decisions of millions of Americans have only added to the disconnect.

On the positive side, the incoming Biden administration is taking federal responsibility seriously, and there is increasing evidence that universal mask wearing has bottom line benefits.

For example, a new study from the University of Utah concludes that improvements in economic activity during the COVID-19 outbreak are linked to masks mandates.

“County-level data from across the U.S. show COVID-19 cases decrease after a mask requirement is put into place,” the researchers summarized, linking that data to a consumer survey.

“A Utah consumer sentiment survey conducted as part of this study found people would be 13 percent more likely to go to a store if confirmed COVID-19 cases fell by 10 percent,” they wrote. “The survey also found people would be 51% more likely to go to a store if everyone was wearing a mask (this percent increase is similar to if a store or the state enforced mask-wearing).”

In the waning days of the Trump administration, the president is unlikely to change direction on COVID-19.

The opportunity to practice COVID-19 safety in advance of the Thanksgiving travel season has been lost, but perhaps the incoming Biden administration can work with US business leaders to prevent further tragedy from striking over the Christmas holidays.

Image credit of Boise, Idaho: Alden Skeie/Unsplash


Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey