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Why it’s Time to End Mask Requirements at College Basketball Games

It’s not January 2021 anymore

Syndication: The Patriot Ledger Greg Derr/The Patriot Ledger via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I know many of you read my stuff to hear takes about basketball or food. So I get if some of you want to avoid this debate. But given mask policies will intersect with sports, I’m going to offer my view that it’s time to end mask mandates at college basketball arenas.

I’m offering this article because it’s something that impacts the sport I cover, and I haven’t seen anyone else in the media publish a “we shouldn’t mask at college basketball arenas” article. That’s why I’m writing this. Again, if you hate this, it’s very easy to just not read this or get sucked into a Facebook or Twitter debate. You shouldn’t debate people on Facebook ever. We should probably all get off that horrific site.

The argument is not very complex. The vaccines are incredibly effective, and every adult can get one. Even with the mask mandate, a large number of folks will either not wear a mask or will eat and drink for large stretches of the game. That means we’re left providing a minimal benefit—given people are barely wearing actually effective masks—and there are costs to masking. Masks are uncomfortable for a host of reasons, especially while trying to cheer and watch a game. We’re never going to hit zero COVID cases as the virus becomes endemic, so it’s rational to stop masking now.

For those of you that support mask mandates, it’s sometimes easy to look at the dumbest mask mandate opponents and think that’s representative of everyone opposed to masking at games. That’s not the case. While I’m loathe to get even more political here, I’m about as close to the center as you’ll find. Our site has people that voted for Joe Biden and Donald Trump. I have some very conservative and very liberal views. Overall I’m fairly moderate (one step to the left or right on the political quizzes depending on which issues they ask about). I just think the evidence weighs in favor of not masking anymore.

Some mask mandate opponents could not be dumber. That doesn’t mean the arguments for mask mandates at basketball arenas are wrong—just because the people that oppose mask mandates include some of the folks that No Child Left Behind clearly left behind.

While I think it’s rational to think we should wait a little longer, ultimately, the minor benefit from masking is outweighed by the costs to doing so for me. To unfurl these arguments, and answer some common objections, I’ll break this down into a bunch of sections.

All adults can get incredibly effective vaccines:

Nearly every adult in America can now get a booster shot. I got my first two doses in February, and I got a booster a few weeks back.

Here’s how well the vaccines work at stopping death, per the CDC:

This plots non-booster data. And the booster is 95.6% effective compared to non-booster but vaccinated folks, per a Reuters report on Pfizer’s data.

Here’s another chart from the New York Times showing how effective vaccines are:

For the Delta variant, a study in the UK showed how amazing the vaccines are:

Overall, 201 deaths from Covid-19 were caused by SARS-CoV-2 that had been tested and found to be S-positive or S-negative (Table 1). Among persons 18 to 39 years of age who had infections for which data on S gene status were available, no deaths occurred among those who were fully vaccinated, as compared with 17 deaths among those who were unvaccinated. Among those who were 40 to 59 years of age, vaccine effectiveness against death from Covid-19 was 88% (95% confidence interval [CI], 76 to 93) for ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 and 95% (95% CI, 79 to 99) for BNT162b2; vaccine effectiveness was 90% (95% CI, 84 to 94) and 87% (95% CI, 77 to 93), respectively, among those 60 years of age or older. Overall, vaccine effectiveness against death from the delta variant 14 or more days after the second vaccine dose was 90% (95% CI, 83 to 94) for BNT162b2 and 91% (95% CI, 86 to 94) for ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 (Table S3).

Per the CDC, 96.5% of the 65+ population has received a vaccine. For the 12+ population, 77.7% have received at least one shot. 67.2% of the 12+ are fully vaccinated and 84.7% of the 65+ population are fully vaccinated.

Those vaccine numbers matter because approximately 76% of COVID-19 deaths are in the 65+ contingent. We know almost every person 65+ has vaccine protection from COVID.

While there is a risk to younger folks, those groups have strong levels of vaccination. They also have a decent number of people with some degree of natural immunity. I would continue to urge anyone unvaccinated to get the shot after they’ve had a long enough recovery or passed the waiting period after getting an antibody treatment, but natural immunity does confer protection too. So we know a large swath of the under 50 group has recovered from COVID.

We’re left with two scenarios—even assuming masks are incredibly effective and worn during games—you either are vaccinated and get COVID and have incredibly strong odds to live, or you are unvaccinated and get COVID and accept the risk.

If you’re vaccinated, it’s worth living your life. Most people are living something similar to normal life. They see friends and go to restaurants. They’ve been to crowded settings where they see at least some people that opt not to mask. Even if you’re much more cautious than most, you’re likely in contact with unmasked people that gather in large areas. The chances to avoid the virus are quite low. But even if you catch it, as explained above, your odds are super strong while vaccinated.

If you’re unvaccinated, then society has no obligation to protect you. We spent billions of dollars to develop incredible vaccines. If you decide it’s not worth taking these splendid vaccines, okay. But don’t expect me to see fewer people or wear a mask to protect you. My sense is that the vast majority of unvaccinated people aren’t asking for restrictions, but we shouldn’t be restricting ourselves for the narrow slice of unvaccinated, worried and non-COVID infected folks.

The masks many people wear aren’t that effective:

The No. 1 argument that masks work is from an August 2021 randomized controlled study in Bangladesh. While there are some indicts to the findings, we’ll just assume the findings are correct that surgical masks reduce COVID-19.

The findings from the study show that there’s a 35% reduction in COVID cases for the 60+ population that wears surgical masks. That’s clearly orders lower than the effectiveness of vaccines, but one could argue, “Any reduction is good!”

The issue is that the study found, “we continue to find an effect overall and an effect for surgical masks, but see no effect for cloth masks.”

Go to any game, and a large segment of people are not wearing surgical masks. They wear cloth masks. The study—the one that is trumpeted by proponents of masking in November of 2021—shows those masks have no effect!

So there is a modest reduction in a controlled trial for folks that are 60+ who wear surgical masks full-time. We get almost no benefit to the many people wearing non-surgical masks at games.

Mask compliance is declining:

If you went to a game in January of 2021—before almost anyone could get a vaccine—most people wore their masks. Even when eating or drinking, people were generally fairly diligent about putting the mask back on quickly. Things have changed.

Check out recent venues. At Kentucky’s Blue & White game, masking was limited. People had the chin diaper with the mask down below their mouth and nose. Same with images at Late Night at the Phog in Lawrence.

Others grab a water and pretend to be drinking for two hours. So we now take the segment of our sample that actually has a surgical mask, then take the segment that actually wears it, and we’re left with an even lower group.

We’re also putting ushers in a pretty bad spot. If over half of people aren’t wearing masks, how is the usher supposed to tell people to mask? Does the usher just accept that fidelity to masking will be terrible? If so, what’s the point? Are we just happy if 20% of people surgically mask for 90% of the game with a mask that has a 35% reduction in case incidence compared to a controlled group for the 60+ population? That’s hardly any benefit.

Masks aren’t fun to wear and we shouldn’t have to wear them now:

There’s a segment of the population that will scoff at the above, and act like this is some weak protest. I agree that masking is not a terrible hindrance. It made sense to mask before vaccines. But the world changes, and our mask policies should too.

Masks make it difficult to cheer. I can hear a segment of folks shouting, “How dare you while we battle a global pandemic?” But this is a cost. Masks make it tougher to speak, and at a venue where you’re trying to shout and cheer, it’s tough to do that. Masks make things hotter and breathing tougher. This isn’t insurmountable, but it’s not enjoyable.

Masks are also annoying for folks with glasses. Yes, there are tactics to prop your glasses over them. But that makes for an annoying fit. So plenty of us that wear glasses are left with them fogging for hours.

Communication is also tougher. You have a much tougher time understanding what someone says while masked. Even a few feet away from coaches and players at Big 12 Media Days, I had to repeat myself to nearly everyone. Without being able to read faces or lips, you’re at a disadvantage speaking.

An easy test: How many of us ever masked before COVID-19? Clearly even those that think masks aren’t much of a problem would prefer to not wear a mask. That shows that masking has some impact. It may not be much, but it’s some cost.

There’s no clear end to masking if now isn’t good enough:

We’re unlikely to hit COVID zero anytime soon. The virus is likely going to stay endemic as hundreds of thousands or millions get it each year. Those that get vaccinated will have strong protection, and those that don’t will accept the risk.

Some will say, “We just need to mask for a while longer, then we can stop?” But when does it end? The trajectory of COVID—thanks to vaccines and natural immunity—has rapidly declined. What’s the metric for when we stop masking? Matt Yglesias, not some right wing fanatic by any stretch, asked that very question recently in his newsletter:

But if fully vaccinated, Covid-conscious communities can’t unmask now, when can they? That’s not a rhetorical question; it deserves an answer. If institutions say the current level of spread in their community is too high, that’s reasonable, but they should pick a target number, and at that point, the masks come off.

America is plagued by a status quo bias where we just punt and somehow argue we need to keep doing something. Or that we’re finally close to turning the corner if we just keep the current plan going. We do that in our wars, in our domestic policies and now with COVID. The reality is pretty clear that COVID will be around for a while. Thanks to the vaccines, the risk is now manageable, and it’s worth living your life around it.

What about kids that can’t get vaccinated?

Everyone 12+ can get a vaccine. If your argument is we need to wait, well, once the CDC and FDA approve vaccines for 5-11, are you going to tell me I need to wait for 3-year-olds to unmask? What about newborns?

For the 5-11 bracket, the risk is miniscule. If I had a 5-11 year old, I would get them vaccinated. But even without the vaccine for that group, the risk is super low.

As David Leonhardt (again, not exactly a beacon of the far right) of the New York Times recently noted, “Nationwide statistics from England show an even larger age skew. Children under 12 (a group that’s combined with teenagers in this next chart) appear to be at less risk than vaccinated people in their 40s if not 30s.”

While it’s a tragedy that 542 kids between the ages of 0-17 are coded as dying from COVID-19 that risk of death is incredibly low. Scott Balsitis, a former CDC fellow and immunologist (and again not like he’s some right wing guy by any stretch) provides:

Every one of those deaths is a tragedy, but that number is no different from annual pediatric deaths from influenza, which numbered 251, 643, and 477 in the three flu seasons prior to the pandemic. Those deaths are of course concentrated among kids with serious pre-existing conditions, so kids without them have almost zero risk. As another reference point, there are about 650 pediatric deaths in motor vehicle accidents every year. Unless your child has a high-risk medical condition, it is more dangerous to drive your kid to and from school than it is for them to get any variant of COVID.

Leonhardt looked at the death rates from August (there is a very small increase in COVID deaths since then, but the group includes 12-17 kids, so it’s not just 5-11):

The truth is that COVID was a catastrophic illness for seniors and a real but manageable risk, especially with vaccines, for the rest. For kids the risk has been incredibly low. Here’s more data from Vox—an explicitly progressive site (I mention these sources are left of center to dispel any notion that these are just right wing folks that hate masking):

Look at the above chart, and ask: When did we ever think drowning or flu were catastrophic enough for kids to change society? I would continue to say—that because the vaccines work and are safe—I would vaccinate if I had a kid. But the risk to kids is much lower than plenty of things we accepted as worth it to live a full life.

But won’t it spread on campus?

First, this doesn’t seem uniquely likely from games. Students are going to Scruff’s (good). The ventilation and space in there is way worse than the Ferrell Center (part of the charm). So the odds someone is only attending and getting exposed at the Ferrell Center is pretty low. This is not April 2020 where it’s the Ferrell Center vs. your couch. We’re almost all going to restaurants and malls. Friends houses and family gatherings; we’re getting exposed in other spots.

Second, Baylor can keep it’s mask policy for classes or at least allow professors to determine the rule for their classroom. If you’re taking someone’s class, it’s understandable to follow their mask guidance if they weigh these values differently than me.

Why don’t you spend you time on this other important issue?

There’s always something more important than whatever area I write about or think about. But that leads to paralysis because any problem can get ignored because, “We should focus on this very important thing instead?”

If there’s some important issue you want me to address, that intersects with Baylor sports, I’ll offer my take. I’ve opined on nearly every major Baylor sports story since May of 2016, which many of you know coincides with me offering opinions that plenty vociferously disdained.

If this is so obvious, why does everyone have a mask policy?

First, not everyone is masking. In Europe, lots of areas are unmasked. Norway just announced that you can fly on a plane without wearing a mask. Plenty of schools in Scandinavia don’t mask students.

Second, there are a bevy of factors to balance. Big money donors might want a mask policy. I have no idea what they want, but if they do, I understand why a school might want to mask at games.

Third, it’s risky to be the first mover. If every school requires masks for basketball games, you can fall back on, “Every other institution is doing it. We’d rather be safe than sorry.” I don’t begrudge Linda Livingstone, Mack Rhoades and others that will inevitably offend people regardless of what they decide. I’m just a guy offering some views online. The people angry on Facebook and Twitter will annoy me way less than they’ll actually bother and be jerks to that pair.

Okay but why I should I listen to you when you’re not a doctor or epidemiologist?

A doctor or epidemiologist is valuable in this debate for telling us what the risks are when we get COVID, and for providing estimates for the risk of COVID based on peer-reviewed research. I believe those studies, and I think the medical community is trying its best in the face of a difficult pandemic. This isn’t a plandemic. Masking isn’t a Marxist takeover of America or some other weird thing. Pfizer isn’t trying to kill us.

Once we have data though, we balance competing conceptions of values. We don’t let generals determine which countries we invade or how large a military we maintain. We don’t let economists solely dictate how we spend and tax. Instead we take expert evaluations and make a call about the effects. We balance the benefits and risks with plenty of things. Your vote counts the same as mine.

In the scientific context, almost any scientist (yes, you can find a few that disagree) will tell you that the burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change. But climatologists alone don’t get to decide the cost benefit from restricting emissions. We also hear from economists about the costs or benefits to restricting emissions. We follow regulators that say how well the government could enforce emission restrictions too. It’s not enough to know that fossil fuels contribute to climate change to know if we should adopt a carbon tax. It’s one piece in the puzzle that requires analyzing many things to determine the right option in a complicated setting. Similarly, doctors and epidemiologists alone don’t get to set mask policies forever. They’re one important component in weighing the risks and benefits of masking within a broader framework outside their expertise.

Plus there are plenty of doctors and epidemiologists that argue we should stop masking. I listed a few throughout this article, and if you look at Nordic countries, you’ll find plenty more. Our public health agencies are much less strict on COVID than Australia and New Zealand too, so there’s not the kind of consensus on masking that there is on something like “vaccines are awesome.”

Maybe the noncompliance status quo is good?

This is sort of weird, but I think the status quo might be the middle ground that schools accept. They’ll formally have a mask policy, but if you have a chin diaper or keep a water nearby, nobody will bother you. Those wanting a mask can keep wearing one without feeling like they’re the only ones doing so, and those opposed have the ease of just flouting the rule.

My issue with that viewpoint is that you force people to either semi-cheat the system, or wear a mask if they oppose doing so. We shouldn’t set people up to feel like they should skirt the rules because they’re wrong. We should just change the rules when they’re wrong.

This was too long, give me your argument quickly:

We have super effective vaccines available for everyone, and the benefits to masking are minimal. Masking carries some costs—hard to speak, difficult to cheer in and messes with glasses. While those costs may seem small to some, they’re real enough that we’d all didn’t wear masks before this.

Most people are going to be unmasked for large stretches of games. Whether by chin diaper or by drinking, you can easily skirt any mask requirement. And even those stringent in their masking need to wear a surgical mask to offer meaningful protection to seniors.

Eventually masking has to end. If not now, when? The alternative benchmarks aren’t any clearer than ending masking now. We have amazing vaccines. If you don’t want one, okay. But then you are accepting the risk from COVID, and I’m guessing you’re not asking me to mask to protect you anyway.

Those that fear society without masks can wear an N95. Those masks still offer protection to the wearer. It’s also possible to just wait a while to go to games if you’re afraid of being in a large unmasked crowd. That’s okay after a tough last two years.

But the last two years were a brutal deviation from normal. Going to a game and cheering loudly makes college basketball amazing. It’s time to return to that.