Opinion: Automakers Reinstating Nationwide Mask Mandates Is a Mistake

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Detroit automakers and the UAW have elected to reinstitute national masking mandates for all of their facilities, starting Wednesday. General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis have issued a joint announcement clarifying that the rules are in accordance with the updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommending masks be worn by all persons regardless of their vaccination status.

Based upon the text included in the release, the industry seems aware that the decision will be unpopular and is doing its utmost to transition responsibility without absolving itself entirely. 

“The [COVID-19 Joint] Task Force met and, after reviewing the recently changed CDC guidelines and community COVID-19 trends, decided it is best for worker safety to resume wearing masks in all worksites,” explains the collaborative statement. “While we know that masks can be uncomfortable, the spread of the Delta variant and recent data outlining the alarmingly high rate of transmission among those unvaccinated is a serious health threat.”

“We know that the best way to fight this virus is by getting vaccinated. The Task Force is strongly encouraging all members, coworkers and their families to roll up their sleeves so we can move more quickly on once again relaxing mask protocols. The more our members, coworkers and their families are vaccinated, the quicker we can vanquish this deadly pandemic.”

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? Similarly, how can the Joint Task Force point out an “alarmingly high rate of transmission among those unvaccinated” while completely ignoring the latest research claiming that vaccinated people can carry just as much viral load as others while simultaneously presenting fewer symptoms? It seems important, especially considering the research was the main reason the CDC updated its guidance. Also, why does any of this matter when the UAW, General Motors, and Ford had already started bringing back masking before the health agency had made its official proclamation?

While your author is all for speaking to your doctor so you can make informed decisions on vaccinations and what does/doesn’t work for your body, the official messaging around COVID has been so wildly inconsistent that it’s becoming truly difficult to take seriously. This is particularly troublesome timing, too, as infection rates have indeed gone up to match what we were seeing over the spring. Though death rate thankfully represents only about one-third of what it was during the same time period with the national seven-day average currently sitting at 388.

Meanwhile, national suicide rates and unemployment statistics have been similarly elevated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that at least 14.7 percent of America was out of work in April 2020, which is the highest level the nation has endured since the Great Depression. Those figures have since come down, settling in around 5.9 percent last month. But the number doesn’t accurately represent the increasingly large number of people that have been out of work for over six months, the millions of small businesses that were lost in 2020, or those individuals who have effectively abandoned the workforce permanently. The economy has not weathered pandemic restrictions terribly well (that semiconductor shortage didn’t come out of nowhere) and the mental health of the citizenry has plummeted while drug abuse climbs beyond record levels. But people are either of the mind that this can all be stopped with just a bit more compliance or wholly convinced that state-sanctioned restrictions won’t ever end until people start ignoring them.

At this stage, there really seems to be a complete societal schism in what should be done. Plenty of reputable outfits will tell you that the associated costs of COVID restrictions outweigh the death toll of the virus. But there are just as many large institutions that will state the absolute opposite opinion. Corporations and state actors will even remove takes that don’t align with the current dogma online, causing new and unique problems for the country. All I know is that the pandemic has allowed the government to give away a substantial portion of the curbside parking in my neighborhood, so the space can be used for restaurants that were no longer allowed to feed people indoors, and that that the resulting outbuildings are often occupied by the now-surging homeless population in the early morning hours.

More recently, my mayor indicated that all residents would need to present proof-of-vaccination cards before being allowed to enter restaurants, gyms, or other establishments. On Tuesday, Bill de Blasio told the press that New Yorkers would need to be vaccinated if they wanted to “participate in our society fully.” While I certainly don’t oppose vaccinations, I do support the informed consent of the public and don’t want to live in a papers-please society. Sadly this places me at odds with these types of mandates and could even make it impossible for me to attend the New York International Auto Show this month without sacrificing my own deeply held beliefs. This should also explain how the above ties back to cars for readers frantically demanding exactly that in the comments.

Having previously asked a handful of line workers based in the United States to provide their take on factory protocols relating to COVID, I revisited the issue with several of the people that were previously good enough to provide comment — all of which requested I not use their name for reasons that should be overwhelmingly obvious. While everyone confessed they were not fond of wearing masks while on the clock, their opinions on the usefulness of such rules were split almost evenly.

“Nobody here likes wearing masks. But all we can really do is comply until they decide to change their minds again,” stated one.

But another member of my impromptu survey confessed that he was already actively looking for work elsewhere in case mask mandates were reinstituted. He called the updated rules “theater” and previously claimed that employees weren’t taking masking protocols all that seriously going into 2021. This time around he suggested the same was probably true of upper management and pointed to a lack of morale among line workers.

“I bet they don’t wear masks in boardroom meetings,” said the factory employee. “What was the point of getting vaccinated in the first place if nothing changed?”

Based on the clear and rampant demoralization of the workforce, I’m not so sure mandating masks is going have the desired consequences the industry is hoping for. Even those willing to comply confessed to being miserable and ultimately desire a return to normalcy and everyone else seems furious that restrictions continue after vaccinations have become commonplace. These restrictions were supposed to be a temporary measure to buy the respective industries time to contend with the pandemic, not an excuse to implement perpetual authority over how the people making everything we use to live their lives.

This isn’t going to result in happier workers, better cars, or anyone becoming more competitive. Automakers should give people the choice to wear masks and hope a sufficient number decide to roll with it. By now, everyone should know the risks and how to mitigate the amount they’re personally exposed to. It’s time to act and treat others like adults again.

[Image: Miljan Zivkovic/Shutterstock]

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