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Nicklaus: Mask mandates aren’t just about health. They’re good for the economy too

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Parson highlights PPE distribution center in Overland

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson removes his mask before speaking at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, announcing Optimas’ new distribution center in Overland that will handle personal protective equipment and other pandemic-related safety materials. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The humble face mask, one of our most effective weapons against the coronavirus pandemic, has unfortunately been caught up in the nation’s culture wars.

Here’s a suggestion: Business groups should take the lead in pushing for tougher rules requiring masks in public. In addition to saving lives, these small pieces of paper and cloth are good for the economy.

A new study by four Washington University researchers finds consumer spending is rising faster in places where state or local officials have imposed mask mandates.

“Mask policies are strongly pro-business,” the study says, and the benefit is greatest for clothing stores, entertainment venues and other non-essential businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Raphael Thomadsen, professor of marketing at Washington University’s Olin Business School, says the mandates increase consumer spending by about 5%. “That is a very large figure; I expected more like 1% or 2%,” he said.

What didn’t surprise Thomadsen, who did the study with associate marketing professor Song Yao and graduate students Nan Zhao and Zack Wang, was that people valued having rules in place to protect them. “Customers don’t want to just throw caution to the wind,” he said.

When officials like Missouri Gov. Mike Parson refuse to order mask-wearing, their decisions have economic consequences. “The desire to prevent mask mandates has held back the economic recovery,” the study says.

The researchers also shed light on the way our political divide has affected the spread of COVID-19. They use mobile-phone location data to track the degree of social distancing in every county, then compare that with voting patterns and coronavirus infection rates.

The cellphone data showed a stark difference between counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016 and places that favored Hillary Clinton. In the pro-Trump counties, people were more likely to visit stores and workplaces and less likely to stay home.

Voting patterns, in fact, were a better predictor of social distancing than government stay-at-home orders.

President Trump has called for states and counties to loosen their pandemic-related restrictions so the economy can recover. The researchers tried to model what that might look like.

If the whole country reduced its social distancing to the level of the strongest pro-Trump counties, they found, consumer spending would rebound a little — but coronavirus deaths would increase by 83,000, or more than one-third.

“Forcing those areas to open up would only make sense if one had a very low value on the lives that would be lost,” the study says.

So, yes, social-distancing orders do hurt the economy, but they also prevent tens of thousands of deaths. When simple measures like requiring a face mask can protect both public health and businesses’ bottom lines, they ought to be in place everywhere.

Thomadsen says business leaders in a few places, including some Florida counties, have begun pushing for mask mandates. “That may reflect that they have been seeing what we’re seeing,” he said. “They are seeing the importance of the mask mandate, and they don’t like the idea of unilaterally policing their customers.”

National business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, appealed in July for states to follow a uniform set of rules when they impose mask mandates, but they stopped short of saying masks should be required everywhere.

If those groups had the courage to take a stronger stand, elected officials might listen. There’s really no tradeoff here: We can’t have a strong economy without strong, commonsense public-health measures.

Editor’s note: Zack Wang is one of the study’s authors. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.

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David Nicklaus is a business columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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