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Masks don’t just save lives. They boost the economy

Researchers find that wearing masks can help avoid devastating economic shutdowns.

Masks don’t just save lives. They boost the economy
[Source Image: Jian Fan/iStock, SoberP/iStock]

At this point, we know that wearing masks can help stop the spread of the coronavirus. But a team at Goldman Sachs Research believes that it’s also beneficial for the economy.

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In a recent report, the economists argue that mask wearing could avert economic shutdowns and save 5% of U.S. GDP.

According to the research, a federal mandate forcing people to wear masks in public could lower the national daily growth rate of new coronavirus infections from 1.6% to 0.6%. To achieve a similar decrease in infections by closing businesses would bring about a fall in GDP of 5%. In other words, masks work very well at curbing the spread of the disease and are far less economically painful than shutting down the economy.

The report points out that the United States stands apart from other countries when it comes to wearing face masks. In Asia, mask-wearing has been common for some time and has been widespread during the coronavirus outbreak. In Europe, many countries have mandated masks in public. But the United States has no federal mandate, nor cultural norms that have led to the widespread use of masks. In fact, it’s become a highly polarized and politicized issue.

The Goldman Sachs team conducted their own research to show that local mandates gradually increase the usage of masks in the applicable areas. A month after mandates requiring masks went into effect, the percentage of people who wore masks frequently or always went up by 25%. They also note that increased usage of masks effectively reduces the rate of infection by 25%.

It’s important to note that the authors of this report are not public health experts. As The Washington Post points out, the goal of Goldman Sachs economists is to protect the economic interests of Goldman Sachs investors. And indeed, Kate Grabowski, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told the Post that it is difficult to clearly identify the effect of mask mandates since states have implemented a variety of policies to curb the spread of the disease. That said, Grabowski believes the Goldman Sachs research makes it clear that masks are important to the pandemic response.

There’s a lot of regional variation when it comes to wearing masks. In some states, there has been very strong resistance to mandates. In Florida, several lawsuits have argued that mask laws violate constitutional rights. And in Texas, protesters have marched on the state capitol saying that mask laws are a form of tyranny. President Trump himself has mocked former vice president Joe Biden for wearing a mask.

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But nationally, resistance to wearing masks appears to be low. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that 54% of people always wear a mask when they expect to be in proximity to others, and 22% say they usually wear masks in that context; only 22% say they rarely or never wear a mask.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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