Mask Up | Editorial

It remains to be seen whether governments that relaxed or eliminated their mask mandates will move as quickly and decisively to put them back in place. But libraries shouldn’t wait for them to do so.

Editor’s Note: When this went to press for the September print issue, the numbers in the text were accurate, but they are now out of date. As of September 1, 94 percent of U.S. counties had high transmission and another nearly 3 percent had substantial transmission, according to the CDC.

Change with new data to model good info lit

Meredith Schwartz head shotJust when COVID-19 case counts were finally falling in many parts of the United States, the more infectious Delta variant started them climbing again. And while it continues to be primarily a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” as Centers for Disease Control (CDC) director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky put it, the CDC cites new research which suggests it’s no longer safe to assume that vaccinated people who do catch the coronavirus won’t have enough virus in their systems to infect anyone else.

As a result, the CDC has revised its previous guidance that said vaccinated people could safely remain unmasked indoors in public spaces, including libraries. Many states, municipalities, and others had promptly removed their mask mandates when that advice was released. Now, the CDC is saying that even vaccinated people should go back to masking indoors in counties where the community transmission rate is considered high or substantial. At press time, 73 percent of the country’s counties had high transmission, and another 16 percent had substantial transmission rates.

It remains to be seen whether governments that relaxed or eliminated their mask mandates will move as quickly and decisively to put them back in place. But libraries shouldn’t wait for them to do so.

Reinstituting mask mandates will be unpopular. Many people dislike wearing them, and enforcing such restrictions adds to staff stress and risk. It also, unfortunately, reduces the incentive for vaccine hesitant people to get the shot. And in places where COVID denial or minimization has become a politicized issue, it may be mistaken for taking a partisan side.

Nonetheless, if your library is in one of the 2,888 counties at high or substantial risk, it is the right thing to do. First and foremost, it is protective of the lives and health of your staff and patrons. The decision of when and whether to close library buildings involves a tradeoff between staff and patron health risks on the one hand and the certainty of failing to provide service to those who need it most on the other. Mask requirements don’t. Free masks at the door and continued curbside and virtual options make sure everyone can get what they need.

While safety is enough reason in and of itself, there is another. Reinstituting masking models one of the most important and too-rarely taught aspects of real-world information literacy: the willingness to change behavior in response to new information.

Apart from professional scientists, most Americans don’t get much experience with this. For many, health issues and climate warming are the primary topics on which evolving science bears on our decisions. Both sit at the uncomfortable intersection of private choices and public consequences. Both are urgent, requiring that we act to prevent what harm we can without waiting to know everything—an impossible moving target.

As a result, some actions will inevitably need to be altered or even reversed as new information surfaces or the situation changes. That’s frustrating, if you’ve been avoiding coffee for health reasons only to learn that it is now associated with lower risk of a wide range of ailments. But it’s also proof that things are working as they should.

However, that’s not obvious to many, who are understandably frustrated as they struggle with moving goalposts for school, work, and social interaction. Some see reversals as proof that the authorities are incompetent, untrustworthy, or both. In fact, authorities that refuse to change in response to new data are far more dangerous.

Fortunately, libraries have, through their policies, an effective channel to push back on that misunderstanding. Only a tiny fraction of library patrons will seek out library programs and resources or librarian perspectives on these issues. By far the broadest reach libraries have to educate their communities about how to respond to changing health data and guidance is not their words, but their actions. Requiring a mask without waiting for local regulations to catch up sends a clear message that health authorities are trustworthy, and that patrons’ masking makes a difference.

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Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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