Relaxing Mask Mandates in New Jersey: A Tale of Two Universities

Voices in Bioethics 8 (2022)
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The ethical question is whether university mask mandates should be relaxed. I argue that the use of face masks by healthy individuals has uncertain benefits, which potential harms may outweigh, and should therefore be voluntary. Systematic reviews by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Cochrane Acute Respiratory Infections concluded that the use of face masks by healthy individuals in the community lacks effectiveness in reducing viral transmission based on moderate-quality evidence. The only two randomized controlled trials of face masks published during the pandemic found little to no benefit. Without high-quality evidence, it is difficult to justify a requirement rather than a recommendation. Notwithstanding, one might argue that the precautionary principle justifies mask mandates. If the precautionary principle can justify implementing mask mandates due to the risk of forgoing possible benefit, then it might also be able to justify not implementing mask mandates due to the risk of potential harm caused by the intervention. It is commonly thought that there is little to lose from the use of face masks, but this is not necessarily true. It is possible that masks have done more harm than good.

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Wesley J. Park
University of Oxford


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