Rules about wearing a COVID-19 mask in indoor workspaces are the same as smoking bans, an article in the latest American Journal of Preventative Medicine argues.
Pushback against face coverings in places like stores and eateries is couched as an encroachment on personal liberties—or as concerns that facial coverings will alienate some customers, as evidenced by viral cellphone videos of irate individuals screaming at store employees.
However, a trio of professors from Ohio State and Purdue universities says mask requirements actually are a workers’ rights issue. Failing to have these protection in place will “very likely be detrimental” to public health, especially frontline workers, so they call on federal, state and local governments to “take an active stance to promote mask wearing in workplaces.”
Resistance to wearing masks is reminiscent of arguments made as smoking bans began cropping up across the United States years ago. The public-health problem then was subjecting workers, like restaurant waitstaff and travel-industry workers, to harmful tobacco smoke, while now the danger is in the respiratory droplets that carry COVID-19. What helped smoking bans gain acceptance was what experts call “denormalization”—when something evolves to be viewed as socially unacceptable.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called cloth face coverings “a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19.”
The disease is spread primarily through the droplets that come out of your nose or mouth when you sneeze, cough, or talk and then go into the noses and mouths of people near you. Not feeling sick doesn’t mean you can’t spread COVID-19; you may have the illness, yet are asymptomatic or presymptomatic.
“Mask requirements should be considered fundamental occupational health protections,” the journal article says. “Existing smoking bans offer a clear precedent—a precedent wherein [workers’] rights to a healthy work environment ultimately take precedence over patrons’ preferences.”
The authors also point out that the workers who are primarily threatened by a lack of mask-wearing are lower-wage earners and racial and ethnic minorities, which further emphasizes COVID-19 inequalities.
To encourage businesses to protect their workers with mask-wearing rules for customers, the AJPM piece suggests emphasizing that unlike smoking bans, mask-wearing is temporary, and explaining to owners that staffers who feel they’re in healthy and safe workspaces tend to be more productive.