COLUMN: Passing a local mask mandate will help Lafayette’s businesses

Some Lafayette businesses, like Bayou Art Co-op, require their customers to mask up; many others, however, do not.

A fast-moving debate is raging around and within the Lafayette City Council as it faces an upcoming vote on instituting a citywide mask mandate. On the one side are those, like Councilman Glenn Lazard, who believe that a mask mandate is essential to slowing the spread of the coronavirus and preventing more people from getting sick and dying. On the other are those, like Mayor-President Josh Guillory, who don’t believe masks should be mandated, because they think that masks don’t work, that they’re not needed, and/or that government shouldn’t be forcing people to wear them. But lost in the rancor is consideration of the positive impact that a mask mandate will have on Lafayette’s businesses.

The only way to reopen the economy is to get the pandemic under control

Most of the people arguing against a mask mandate also advocate for reopening the economy to save businesses. But here’s the thing: The economy will never be able to fully reopen and recover until we’re able to get the spread of this virus under control. People need to feel safe to get back to their normal routines, and that can’t happen so long as the simple act of eating at a restaurant carries the risk of disease or death. While vaccines are becoming available, we’re still months away from the majority of people being able to get them. In the meantime, our only hope to stop the spread of this disease so that people feel safe reengaging with the economy fully is for as many people as possible to practice basic safety protocols like wearing masks.

The risk to Lafayette’s businesses is higher than ever

When City Councilwoman Nanette Cook crawfished on her support for the mask mandate, she cited Lafayette’s downward trend in infections as reason for cautious optimism that a mask mandate isn’t necessary. But that analysis ignores the fact that Lafayette is widely viewed throughout the state as being open for Mardi Gras, with images of its packed bars making their way across social media, meaning we could see an influx of residents from other cities over the next week. It also completely disregards the rise in new variants of the coronavirus that are more infectious. In particular, a variant found in the UK that’s almost twice as infectious has entered the U.S. and is racing across the country. Whenever it hits Lafayette, it’s likely to spike local infections, especially if people continue to dismiss the severity of the danger this virus poses.

Too many people aren’t taking the threat of this virus seriously

There’s no good hard data about mask wearing in Lafayette vs. other communities, but there is certainly an abundance of evidence that too many people in our city and parish are letting their guard down. Just take a look at what’s happening in some of our bars and clubs over recent weekends. While it’s unfortunate that we’re even having to consider instituting a local mask mandate, it’s clear that a lot of people aren’t taking this pandemic seriously without it (Lafayette is the largest city in the state without a local mandate). So what we’re doing now in relying entirely on personal responsibility clearly is not working.

A mask mandate would help keep employees and customers healthier

It’s simple really. Businesses get hurt when employees are too sick to work and customers are too sick to buy their products or services. Wearing masks helps slow the rate of transmission. So mandating masks would keep more people healthy, which helps businesses avoid the costs of reduced productivity and increased healthcare expenses. Those costs are especially high when people either get really sick or are ill for an extended period of time. Covid excels at doing both. So a mask mandate would help businesses save money while protecting their revenues.

It would save businesses from the no-win situation of enforcement

Right now businesses are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to enforcing the governor’s statewide mask mandate. If they enforce the mandate, they’re accused by some customers of infringing on their personal liberties. If they don’t enforce the mandate, they’re labeled by other customers as people who don’t care about doing their part to protect the public’s health. Making this all the more challenging is that while there’s a statewide mask mandate in theory, in practice Guillory has ordered local officials not to enforce it, and the state’s enforcement has been virtually nonexistent as well. But if a mask mandate passes with enforcement, there will no longer be any gray area about what local businesses should be doing if they want to avoid penalties. And as a result, if their patrons get angry it won’t hinge on an individual business’s decision of whether to enforce the statewide mask mandate.

The challenges of enforcement aren’t legitimate reasons not to pass a mandate

One argument that’s been floating around against passing a mask mandate is the logistical challenge of enforcement. While those challenges are real, they’re a pretty lame excuse not to do whatever we can to protect public health. Some have warned that enforcement would distract the police from their other work. But if the Lafayette Police have the time to threaten to arrest a doctor over a contract dispute with a moving company, to respond in force to a fake antifa event, and to arrest a woman for barbecuing on the street, then they should have time to enforce a mask mandate. Law enforcement’s most important job is to keep people safe, so there’s no reason this issue can’t be a higher priority than some of their other work that does not involve keeping people alive. Lafayette PD could also be assisted by the sheriff and city marshal in its compliance efforts.

A mask mandate won’t stop the coronavirus, but it will help

Finally, to anyone who argues that a mask mandate won’t get everyone to wear masks and won’t totally stop the spread, you’re absolutely right. Just because you make something illegal doesn’t mean people will stop doing it. And masks alone are not enough to end the transmission of this disease. But a mandate will get more people to wear masks more often, which will slow the spread. And the more we slow the spread, the more people we’ll keep healthy, the more people will avoid getting sick with long-term health consequences, and the more people we can keep alive. A mask mandate isn’t a silver bullet that’ll solve all our problems, but it will be a key tool in keeping our community and our businesses safer than they are right now and will do so at a time when we’re as vulnerable as ever.