Go Ahead. Take Off Your Mask. No, You First.

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Last month my home state of Virginia lifted its mask mandate, at least for fully vaccinated people and subject to some modest qualifications. My employer, a public university, followed suit.

At the same time, the stores and restaurants I frequent have continued their mandates without interruption. This poses a dilemma for libertarians who have opposed mask mandates as a tool of government coercion: Why are governmental bureaucracies, which are so often sluggish and risk-averse, now less cautious than the private sector?

The mystery deepens upon further examination.

If there is any part of the private sector that has pretty much abolished masks, it is restaurants. Usually a sign requiring masks is posted at the entrance, but with exceptions for people who are drinking and eating. Well, these are restaurants. That’s why people go to them. Customers are now more likely to order a drink right away, if only so they can take off their masks. They stay off for the duration of the meal. Even after everyone is done eating, the masks stay off and the conversation continues. Most people put their masks on again only as they are leaving the restaurant — a nonsensical combination of behaviors.

U.S. restaurants recently re-attained their pre-pandemic activity levels. So customers don’t seem bothered by these new arrangements, nor have I seen any angry columns or Twitter threads about them. Instead, people seem quite comfortable with the idea of essentially maskless restaurants. And since only about 40% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, a typical crowded restaurant almost certainly contains unvaccinated people.

My local shopping mall, hardware store and supermarket are not following suit with their own lax-mask policies, even though people in those settings are probably talking less and pushing less of their air around the room. Their mask mandates seem to be universally followed, unless of course you go to the restaurants and coffee shops inside.

The nature of the inconsistency is this: Many people would like to take fewer precautions. But everyone is reluctant to move first. This applies to businesses as well as individuals. Since being fully vaccinated, I have participated in some hugs and shaken a number of hands — but only after the other person made the first move.

Retail businesses are stuck in a kind of overly rigid equilibrium. Many of them may want to adopt the de facto mask practices of restaurants, but they are afraid to move first, out of fear of seeming uncaring and irresponsible. And so the private mask mandates continue. Yet if a business has a good excuse for weakening the mandate — namely the sale of food and drink — the pressure is off to do any real enforcement.

Many governments, in contrast, are not so worried about consumer reaction. People have to pay their taxes no matter what, and not all elected positions in local government are hotly contested. But there is something else going on here: I believe we are all — for better or worse — wishing someone would lead us to a new equilibrium with less mask-wearing. Thankfully, some state governments have taken on this responsibility.

Of course, these same arguments imply that government performed a useful service in encouraging and requiring mask-wearing initially, at least once it realized that masks are useful. In the early spring of 2020, many people (myself included) wanted to start wearing masks, but feared that doing so would signal that they had Covid. At the time, government mask mandates removed that fear and helped create a new and more cautious equilibrium.

On a related note: Have you noticed that private universities often have a stronger “woke” culture, and less free speech, than public universities? This fact is also somewhat of an embarrassment for many libertarians. Though libertarian-leaning, I am myself happy to be teaching at a public institution, with its stronger legal and normative free-speech protections.

Might the parallel run deeper here? Perhaps the currently enforced codes of wokeism at many universities and technology companies are like mask-wearing norms. Maybe people would be willing to relax more about these issues once someone gives the signal that it is OK to do so.

That would imply that extreme wokeism, like mask mandates, won’t last long. More than just libertarians, perhaps, can take comfort in that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include "Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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