Column: Lafayette’s economy needs a mask mandate now

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When facing a natural disaster, a community needs unity, a shared sense of purpose that we’re all in this together and working toward the same goal — to survive the storm and rebuild when it’s over.

Despite Lafayette being in the middle of a full-blown pandemic, it’s hard to imagine our community being any less unified. We can’t even agree on something as basic as wearing masks or face coverings, despite the recommendations of every major health organization in the world and proof of their success in lowering infection rates in other countries.

A recent (highly unscientific) poll of viewers watching Good Morning Acadiana, KATC’s morning show, found only 42% were wearing masks regularly. Yet just yesterday at a press conference, Region 4 Medical Director Dr. Tina Stefanski stated that we need 80-90% of people to wear masks to slow the spread of the infection.

These contradicting messages come at a time when Lafayette is experiencing explosive growth despite schools and colleges being closed since March. With those germ factories set to reopen in a little over a month, the window is closing for getting the spread of this disease under control.

And that’s a big big problem, both for the people who live here and for our economy.

The public safety impact is obvious. Unchecked, people will die and many more will get sick. But unfortunately, protecting life and well-being isn’t enough for many coronavirus skeptics who view the issue as a trade-off between healthy people and a healthy economy. A healthy economy needs healthy people. And if we don’t do something about this fast, our community and our economy are going to get sicker. 

Yes, there is an economic impact associated with death. This study of the economic consequences of avoidable deaths due to inadequate healthcare puts a cumulative value relative to GDP of $1.4 million per lost life over the next 15 years. 

Then there’s the impact of potentially tens of thousands of people being sick for months at a time. Many are being told that some of their bodily functions will never fully recover, like lung capacity, or congestive heart failure. That not only hurts productivity but it also saddles a significant number of people with ongoing medical bills and reduced capacity to earn a living.

We also can’t expect our medical professionals to be able to handle thousands of patients with very serious and contagious conditions for months at a time without there being some risk of our local healthcare system breaking down and losing its capacity to care for our community.

These dynamics all have the potential to form very nasty reinforcing cycles of personal and economic suffering. But they’re not even the scariest thing from an economic perspective. Because here’s the thing: If the spread of the virus continues on its current trajectory, we will be forced to shut the economy back down at some point. Whether that point is coming sooner or later, it’s inevitable if we can’t slow the spread. And unlike last time, there are no guarantees that we’ll be able to rely on Congress to cut a bunch of checks to people, businesses, nonprofits and the government to keep everyone afloat. A recent study by Goldman Sachs concluded that a national masking mandate, in lieu of additional lockdowns, could save the U.S. economy from taking a 5% GDP hit.

A lot of businesses that hung on by the skin of their teeth through the first shutdown won’t stand a chance of surviving a second. Our economy has already been teetering, unable to regain any of the ground it lost and now facing a permanent reduction in oil and gas, its most important industry. Lafayette has lost 50,000 of the 220,000 jobs its economy supported back at the peak in 2014. If the coronavirus is allowed to run rampant through the community, that hole will only get deeper and steeper.

And we can’t just think in terms of jobs and bankruptcies. Because if Lafayette’s losing tens of thousands of jobs, that’s going to cascade through every single part of our economy. Commercial and residential real estate values will go down. Retail sales will go down since there will be so many fewer people with money in their pockets available to spend. With property values and retail sales falling, tax revenues will drop like a stone. That inevitably leads to crummier roads and schools and public buildings and public services. Crummier public infrastructure will make it even harder to convince companies to move or stay here.

Lafayette was facing aspects of this terrifying reality before coronavirus showed up. And we’ve got a whole host of challenges to overcome even if the coronavirus magically disappeared tomorrow. But if we let this disease get any more out of control, Lafayette’s facing an economic collapse it may never recover from.

That’s why the only thing that any of us should be focused on right now is figuring out how to slow the spread of this virus.

The problem is that there are currently only two ways to slow this spread, and one of them is shutting the economy back down again. The other is to get 80-90% of the people of Lafayette to wear masks every time they’re around other people outside of their home unit.

That’s it. Those are our only options until a vaccine or treatment is developed, tested and proven viable and safe.

But to achieve this goal we need everyone on the same page, rowing in the same direction, doing everything in their power to achieve this common purpose.

That means we need every business and nonprofit and government agency and building owner to require every person in every one of their buildings to wear a mask whenever they’re anywhere other than their own offices. 

In my opinion, there’s absolutely no way we can achieve anywhere near 80-90% without everyone buying into this notion and doing everything they can to advocate for it, including taking what some consider to be the extreme and unnecessary step of implementing a parishwide mask mandate.

Here’s the thing, our community is already proving that relying on individual responsibility isn’t enough to achieve the level of participation we need to slow the spread. If everyone would just agree that this is a good idea and do it, we wouldn’t need to mandate anything. But we can’t be naive about the fact that Lafayette doesn’t just have a number of people not complying with this best practice. Many of our neighbors are openly skeptical that coronavirus is something we need to worry that much about.  

The ship has sailed on the idea that we can just recommend people wear masks and everyone will comply. What’s needed is that we redouble our efforts and use every tool at our disposal to inspire our community to take collective action for the common good.