Mask Mandates for Autoworkers Are Fine



On Tuesday, Matt wrote an op-ed piece in which he said that it’s a mistake for automakers to bring back mask mandates.

I disagree.

First, a bit of peeling back the curtain on how op-eds are handled here — as a site, we will make arguments from across the spectrum, as long as they are intellectually honest, factually-backed when possible/appropriate, and don’t stray into outright bigotry. Oh, and the topic needs to be appropriate and interesting for our audience, of course. TTAC is meant to be a place where all of those who write here (and outsiders with a strong freelance pitch) can have a voice, regardless of whether myself or others on staff agree or not.

And we often don’t agree on cars, sports, or politics. I’ve disagreed with a couple of Jo’s takes, but I happily published them so y’all can have an interesting discussion. Unrelated to cars, our staff is all over the political map, Chris and I root for different MLB teams that share the same city, and Adam gets trolled when the Detroit Lions do that thing they do (lose). It’s mostly, though not always, civil, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I mention this because a few of you took issue with Matt’s piece. And while I will edit for factual errors (which in itself can lead — and has led — to internal arguments over whether something is factual or not in some unique cases. Not all facts are clear-cut, and that can make things messy sometimes), I do not try to change any individual writer’s argument. Matt is within his rights to make the arguments he made, even if you or I disagree.

That said, I don’t agree with all of his arguments from the post, and since we both have this platform, it’s time for an old-fashioned point/counterpoint.

Let’s start here: “Except what would be the utility of getting vaccinated when the decision literally serves as an example that you’ll still be subjected to COVID restrictions?” I get the frustration here — it’s why a lot of fully vaccinated people, myself included, feel angry that we did our part, got the go-ahead to take off our masks, and whoops, now we have to put them back on. But here’s the thing — it also, to me, serves as an incentive to get the unvaccinated but persuadable folks to get their shots ASAP. The thinking, to me, is that if we can get more folks vaxxed, we can finally ditch the mask (please excuse the partial rhyme).

The Delta variant plays into this, as well. It’s highly contagious among the unvaccinated. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has new data that seems to suggest that the vaccinated can spread the variant quite easily if they become infected, and they may not realize they’re infected. Yes, infections among the vaccinated seem rare. More on that in a sec. That said, the idea is if we all mask up indoors while in public for a few weeks, maybe we can slow the spread of Delta, which by all accounts is far more contagious than the original COVID strain.

Masking up is meant to kill two birds with one stone — or is that two strains with one mask? Bad jokes aside, the idea is that masking will keep the unvaccinated from spreading the virus to each other, and to keep the vaccinated who are unknowingly infected with a “breakthrough” case of COVID from also spreading it.

Speaking of those breakthrough infections, I know they are very rare, despite the fact that the mainstream media’s reporting last week came across as alarmist (sidenote: I think the issue was a lack of statistical training among media, as opposed to fearmongering for clicks, but either way, the reporting needed to be better). But they do and will happen.

This is why I think it’s smart for the automakers to keep mask mandates in place for a while. It’s not just about safety for the workers or their communities, it’s about good business. Do automakers want to lose workers to illness, especially as they work to catch up from the production delays caused by the chip shortage? Even asymptomatic workers who test positive will be asked to quarantine. That’s one fewer man or woman on the assembly line.

That said, Matt raises a good point about enforcement on the assembly line. Mandates mean little if there isn’t compliance and enforcement. Masks won’t work if they aren’t worn — and worn correctly. And the workers surveyed for Matt’s post and a previous article don’t necessarily give off confidence that the mandates were/are being followed in such a way as to actually reduce viral spread.

I do agree with Matt that it’s odd to have the United Auto Workers and the Detroit Three coming together on a national mandate shortly after the automakers had already started bringing back mask mandates on a smaller basis. Perhaps the reasoning is that it’s simply easier to mandate masks across the board than doing it patchwork based on COVID case counts in a given state. Or maybe it’s also a subtle nudge for the unvaccinated to get jabbed.

I won’t get too much into the mental health/lockdown discussion, since I don’t think lockdowns are coming back unless a variant makes the vaccines completely useless, other than to say that lockdowns do suck and hurt the economy and take a toll on mental health, yet they also do slow the spread of the virus. All those things are simultaneously true.

Similarly, I don’t know where I am at when it comes to vaccine mandates, and/or showing proof of vaccination. Mask mandates, I can abide, at least for now — they’re meant to keep people from spreading the virus, I’d rather be masked in public than stuck at home, and they won’t last forever*. I’d love to rely on people being grown-up adults and making the right choice, the one that protects not just themselves but those around them, but unfortunately, too many people have either not understood why masks were/are necessary. Or they do understand but just insist on not doing something they don’t want to do, even if their choice has potentially serious negative consequences for others.

*For reasons I still cannot understand, anti-maskers seem to think that those of us who were OK with mask mandates and diligent about masking actually like wearing the things. I don’t. In fact, I usually hate it. But I’d rather wear one than risk COVID. That said, I will ditch mine ASAP when the time comes, and I’ve already been a bit more lax since the date my full vaccination kicked in. I still wear it when required by local law or a business, but I can’t wait till I can stuff my masks in a drawer.

Vaccine mandates give me a bit more pause, though I’m slowly leaning towards being accepting of the idea. I’m of the camp that personal liberty stops applying when your liberty affects mine. If you’re not vaccinated, you could, in theory, get me sick, despite my vaccination. And if too many people are not vaccinated, it can lead to the healthcare system being overwhelmed and prevent us from fully reopening society.

Besides, it’s not like vaccine mandates are illegal. In fact, the law is on their side in most cases.

On the other hand, the idea of a mandate just feels creepy, even if it’s legal and can be justified on moral and/or logical grounds. I think that’s where some of the objection comes from. Even as someone leaning in favor, ever so slightly, of the idea, I feel uncomfortable.

The bigger issue, to me, is showing proof — it’s way too easy to fake these cards, despite stiff punishment for those who do.

Before you think I am veering off track, this matters for the auto industry. Private companies can mandate vaccines, and many outside the industry are, so it will be interesting to see what happens with automotive plants (and offices). Ford is the only OEM I know of with a mandate so far, and only for those who travel internationally.

I also share some of Matt’s concerns about the government working with social-media giants to stop misinformation. To be clear, it is not “censorship” for a site like Facebook to take down content it believes is misinformation. It’s content moderation, just like what we do here when one of you commenters breaks our rules. Nor do I think it’s a violation of free speech or the First Amendment for the government to work with companies like Facebook to stop misinformation. Stopping misinformation/disinformation is not the same as censoring ideologies.

That said, it does make me uncomfortable to have the government involved — can we trust that the administration won’t cross the line from honest fact-checking by public-health officials into soft suppression of objectionable speech? I’d like to think so, but it’s still worrisome. And even if it maintains an honest, good-faith effort to stop harmful public-health misinformation, is the government really the entity that should be doing fact-checking? Isn’t that best left to the media and the social-media companies? I know the public-health officials likely have nothing but honest intentions, and they have the required expertise — but this is an area in which the administration needs to tread carefully, lest it give off the impression of overreach.

That’s not to say I agree with the screeching critics Matt cited — some were over the top, others flat wrong — but even if some prominent pundits falsely cry “censorship”, that doesn’t mean that we should feel good about government intervention when it comes to stopping misinformation. No matter how well-intended it is.

Finally, I’d like to close by touching on a point Matt hinted at throughout his piece. People are exhausted by the pandemic, and by the way the rules seemingly constantly change. The communication from public-health officials, especially from the CDC, has not been great, either under Trump or Biden. Tying this back to the car world, I’d love to see some of the spinmeisters employed by the OEMs take a crack at things. I’d bet they’d have set expectations well — “We’re still learning about the virus, and advice might change, and it might even be contradictory, please bear with us”. I bet they’d have better explained why the vaccinated need to mask up again, at least for a while, to deal with Delta.

Indeed, maybe they need to explain the need for mask mandates to their own people.

[Image: LL_studio/]

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