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Tyler Cowen: The elite are unmasked. What about those who serve them?

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I am increasingly disturbed by what I call “mask apartheid.” If you have attended a conference or public event recently, you may have noticed it: The wealthier attendees are not usually wearing masks, but the poorer servers and staff almost always are.

Even if the attendees are wearing masks at the beginning, the masks come off once they start wining and dining — and they usually don’t go back on. Isn’t this a sign that mask-wearing is no longer so essential? At the very least, it sends a mixed message: If you want to be comfortable eating and drinking with your peers, it’s OK to take off your mask — but it’s not OK if you want to be comfortable serving food, carrying heavy trays and describing the dessert menu.

Yes, there are reasons for this difference — for one, you can’t eat or drink with a mask on — but, just as surely, that difference is unfair. And that unfairness is heightened by the reality that, at least in the U.S., most of people who attend conferences or events tend to be White, wealthy and well-educated. The servers are often people of color and typically earn lower incomes. They are also hard workers. Are we really distributing the burden properly here?

More than once over the last few months, sitting at a table at a conference, I have wanted to lean back and whisper to my server: “It’s OK, you can take off your mask!” But I don’t want to get them in trouble with their bosses, so I bite my tongue.

I do understand there are some practical reasons that servers are required to wear masks, most notably that they might be vaccinated at lower rates than the attendees. Furthermore, they might be working for independent contractors and not be covered by any vaccine mandate imposed by the event or conference itself.

Still, are those sufficient reasons for the differential mask treatment? By now everyone must realize just how selective the enforcement of mask rules can be. If those same employees are drinking or eating together in the back room, their masks are off and everyone is fine with that. All of a sudden, the possibility of spreading a COVID infection is not such a big deal.

As a further complication, many servers may want to keep their masks on, even if they are fully vaccinated and in good health. Their audience does not and cannot know if they are vaccinated, and so maskless servers might experience a guest squirming away from them or scrambling to put on a mask as they approach. In such circumstances, servers might just prefer to wear their masks.

Many public health intellectuals and pundits may be uncomfortable with mask apartheid. But they have so strongly promoted the mask-wearing norm it is hard for them to object. They could argue that the elite guests should be required to wear their masks before and after the food and drinks are served, or even between bites, but at this point such a recommendation would be ignored.

Furthermore, given the essentially moral (and correct) critiques of segregation and apartheid, the existence of some practical benefits from servant mask-wearing doesn’t justify the practice. Think of it this way: In America in 2021, some workers are required to hide their faces when they approach the people they are serving. How is this acceptable?

To be clear, I think that masks are somewhat effective in slowing COVID spread, and I have been a loyal mask-wearer for most of the pandemic. But people can’t keep wearing them forever, and vastly more Americans aren’t getting vaccinated anytime soon. Might an understanding of mask apartheid help jolt us out of our current complacency?

Perhaps you find the term “mask apartheid” too harsh. But I find it striking how few criticisms this differential treatment has received, so perhaps a bit of shock treatment is required. I also worry that the current practice of shaming less well educated people who have less efficacious vaccine and mask habits is going to backfire, and they will stop listening to elites altogether. Then American society will be even more divided than it already is.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. 

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