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Rewards for masks might be a lifesaver

Posted on December 9, 2020

OpinionColumns

When it comes to making pandemic precautions stick, some people seem to prefer a violent shove to a gentle nudge.

The day North Carolina added teeth to its mask mandate, infectious disease physician Joshua Barocas and public health professor Gregg Gonsalves urged a paradigm shift in public health policy. Writing for Slate.com, they recommended cash incentives for wearing masks, reasoning that positive reinforcement can be a better motivator than fear of punishment.

I tweeted a link to the piece, noting that governors’ focus on consequences for mask scofflaws that range from fines to arrests amounted to an “all stick and no carrot” campaign. More than a few people reflexively rebuffed the idea.

Laura Leslie, state Capitol bureau chief for WRAL-TV in Raleigh, chimed in on Twitter: “Why do we need a cookie for doing what’s needed to take care of our fellow Americans?”

It’s more personal than philosophical for Leslie, who wrote that COVID-19 had been reported in her father’s memory care facility. For coronavirus patients, their loved ones and people in high-risk categories, the suggestion that neighbors would only deign to don face coverings in exchange for a bribe may be deeply offensive.

Elsewhere on Twitter and in the Slate essay’s comments, mask mandate supporters clamored for coercion. If people won’t wear the cloth rectangles to reduce coronavirus spread, slap them with a stiff fine or haul them off to jail.

Conservatives, who tend to prize personal freedom over collective comfort, are more likely to be anti-maskers. Many liberals are appalled that anyone would refuse a small sacrifice for the greater good. These pandemic politics create cognitive dissonance on both sides.

The crowd that chanted, “Defund the police!” during Black Lives Matter marches now want to sic the cops on anyone who leaves home with an uncovered chin. #MaskUp is the mandatory state religion, and there’s no time to win converts through persuasion: Heretics must repent under threat of force.

Meanwhile, the self-styled patriots who demanded “law and order” and defended authoritarian crackdowns on peaceful protests are suddenly interested in civil liberties. Maskless marauders think cursing Costco clerks and comparing pandemic police to brownshirts makes them heroic figures.

These caricatures don’t apply to everyone, but they’ll be familiar to most Americans who spend time on social media. Changing the conversation around face coverings and social distancing could lead to fewer feuds, more masking and greater social cohesion.

It’s time for a commonsense compromise. We need to wear masks to slow COVID-19’s rapacious spread and give the vulnerable among us a fighting chance. We also need to reason with skeptics instead of using government power to bully them.

Rising case counts suggest pandemic fatigue is a real phenomenon: As restrictions on public life persist month after month, people become complacent, and compliance with masking, social distancing and mass gathering restrictions begins to wane.

North Carolina’s mask mandate took effect in March, but breaking with many of his blue-state peers, Gov. Roy Cooper stressed education over enforcement. An executive order allowed police to levy civil fines against businesses that didn’t require masks. There was no penalty for maskless individuals.

That seemed to work well enough — until it didn’t.

Faced with a second surge of the deadly virus, Cooper signed a Thanksgiving week order that subjects mask scofflaws to a Class 2 misdemeanor. Credit Cooper for being late to the party on criminalizing bare faces, but it’s a pity his invitation wasn’t lost in the mail.

Barocas and Gonsalves suggest incentives such as providing masks to the public for free; sponsoring discounts or vouchers that businesses can offer mask-wearing consumers; paying people to download contact tracing apps; and giving Americans a metaphorical shot in the arm along with a literal one by tying $1,000 stimulus payments to taking the coronavirus vaccine.

Scoff if you wish, but you’ll have to take a seat alongside the other science deniers. A robust body of research in psychology and behavioral economics shows that positive reinforcement works.

The virus doesn’t care whether people’s motives for masking are altruistic. Since no mayor or governor can make compassion compulsory, it’s time to embrace incentives as a necessary means to an end.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Enterprise and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

Corey Friedman

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