As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, discussion has come about as to whether a mask mandate would be a viable option to help stop the spread. The years-long fight over seat belt laws offer perspective into how a universal mask mandate might play out.
Seat belt mandates became an issue starting in the 1950s as lawmakers and public health officials argued that adopting seat belt legislation would be a way of saving lives. Despite the evidence presented by medical professionals who saw what happened to car accident victims when they did not wear a seat belt, many Americans pushed back, saying that seat belt laws were unconstitutional. The problem was that most of this pushback came from misinformation and refusal to recognize scientific evidence.
Car companies, such as Ford and Volvo, began to offer seat belts as an option in their new vehicles to get more drivers and passengers to wear seat belts. However, this voluntary option did not lead to more cars with seat belts being purchased. In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation requiring seat belts in all passenger vehicles and created a national traffic safety agency to assist in a public information campaign regarding the importance of seat belt use and safety.
This public information campaign included advertisements with a “buckle up” jingle, as well as the now-famous crash test dummies, Vince and Larry. The ads showed what happened to the dummies when they were in accidents in vehicles while not wearing seat belts. Having this visual proof seemed to do the trick in showing how seat belts worked. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence was not enough as many Americans still insisted that being forced to wear a seatbelt was a violation of their personal freedoms.
States began to pass their own seat belt laws starting with New York in 1984. As more states followed, the federal government began to issue extra highway funding to states that had tougher seat belt laws.
Would a mask mandate work in the same manner? During the 1918 influenza epidemic, the mask mandates issued had a backlash. People fought back and created their own anti-mask leagues during that time, just like many people fight the mask requirements today.
According to the AARP, around 33 states, including the District of Columbia, have some type of mask mandate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 89 percent of people reported wearing masks in June 2020, which was up from the 78 percent reported in April.
States with largely Republican government leadership have fought mask mandates for the most part. Leaders in these states argue that mask wearing is a matter of personal responsibility and should not be mandated by the government. However, many of these states are those leading the country with COVID-19 outbreaks.
President-elect Joe Biden has stated that he intends to ask governors to each issue mask mandates. If governors refuse, he intends to go further by reaching out to mayors and other local officials to encourage mask mandates. It has been suggested that it may take an act of Congress to enforce a nationwide mask mandate, much like the way Congress utilized federal highway funds in the 1960s to encourage passage of seat belt laws.