A national mask mandate could lower virus infections and help recovery, Goldman Sachs says

Wearing a face mask has become a politically-charged issue in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, but a national mask mandate could lower infections and help the economic recovery, according to a new report from Goldman Sachs.

As outbreaks flare up across the Sun Belt in states like Arizona, California, Florida and Texas, a national mask mandate could partially substitute for more lockdowns that threaten to depress economic activity even further, Goldman Sachs says. 

A face mask mandate could raise the percentage of people who wear masks by 15 percentage points and cut the daily growth rate of cases by 1 percentage point to 0.6%, Jan Hatzius, chief economist at Goldman, and a team of analysts said in the report. 

“If a face mask mandate meaningfully lowers coronavirus infections, it could be valuable not only from a public health perspective but also from an economic perspective because it could substitute for renewed lockdowns that would otherwise hit GDP,” Hatzius said in a note to clients. 

“Countries which took longer to reach widespread mask usage whether by policy or cultural norms suffered more virus cases and fatalities,” Hatzius added.

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Across three different models, Goldman found that face masks were associated with significantly better outcomes. The data reflects a largely causal impact of masks rather than a correlation with other factors like reduced mobility or avoidance of large gatherings, Hatzius said.

A face mask mandate could potentially substitute for lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from U.S. gross domestic product, according to Goldman Sachs. States that don’t have a state-level mandate account for 40% of total confirmed cases in the U.S., roughly 45% of GDP and half of the population.

An airport traveler wears a face mask.

Many European countries have mask mandates, while much of East Asia has strong social norms of mask-wearing while sick or during pandemics. The share of respondents saying that they wear a face mask in public is nearly 90% in East Asia, 80% in Southern Europe and just below 70% in the U.S, Goldman Sachs says. 

To be sure, face mask usage is among the highest in the Northeast, where outbreaks have improved in recent months. But it's generally lower in the South, where the numbers have deteriorated. 

Only about 40% of respondents in Arizona say that they “always” wear face masks in public, compared with nearly 80% in Massachusetts.

“A national mask mandate could increase U.S. face mask usage by statistically significant and economically large amounts, especially in states such as Florida and Texas that currently don’t have a comprehensive mandate and are seeing some of the worst outbreaks,” Hatzius said.