Your right to refuse to wear a mask ends at others’ six feet of space


Is a requirement to wear a cloth face covering in public spaces an infringement on individual freedom?

Some Florida counties and cities have made masks mandatory in public buildings. Others have refrained from passing an ordinance or executive action but encouraged residents to voluntarily wear masks.

The reason to wear cloth face coverings is to protect others in case you are infected and do not know it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), many who are COVID-19 positive have no symptoms, and those with no symptoms can still pass the virus to others. The virus is most commonly spread in the droplets of moisture that leave the mouth and nose when you talk, cough or sneeze. The cloth face covering catches those droplets of moisture so they don’t land on other people.

Your mask protects others; their masks protect you.

What about the rights of the individual?

My sixth grade social studies teacher explained it this way: “The right to extend your arm ends where the other person’s nose begins.”

Similar quotes have been credited to Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Stuart Mill and Abraham Lincoln.

“The Yale Book of Quotations” includes a citation from the June 1919 Harvard Law Review in an article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee Jr. titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time,” crediting an anonymous judge: “Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. ‘Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins’.”

To adapt that saying for the COVID-19 recommendations: “Your right to go without a mask ends where the other fellow’s 6 feet of social distance space begins.”

Those who cannot wear masks due to health issues can help protect others by taking special care to observe that 6 feet of social distance.

On April 3, the CDC updated the recommendations to encourage Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public: “We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (asymptomatic) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (pre-symptomatic) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.

In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

“It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6 feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus. CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure,” the CDC statement continued.

The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.