Months into the pandemic, countries around the world are seeking to tighten public health policies to contain the spread of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, until there is an effective vaccine. With growing evidence that face coverings limit the virus’s transmission, more than one hundred countries have issued nationwide mask mandates. Others, including the United States and Brazil—which have the two highest confirmed case counts and death tolls—have decided against federal requirements, though some state and city officials have issued mask orders.
Mask usage was already common in some East Asian countries before the start of the pandemic. The first countries to set national mandates amid the coronavirus crisis were Vietnam and the Czech Republic, in mid-March. They have since become more common, although some European countries, including Lithuania and Slovakia, have lifted or loosened earlier mandates due to low case counts. In countries with limited mandates, masks are most commonly required on public transportation and in indoor spaces such as supermarkets and stores.
U.S. leadership has waffled on the issue. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised Americans since April to use face coverings in public, which CDC Director Robert Redfield has called “one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus.” President Donald J. Trump opposed—and even ridiculed—the wearing of face masks before endorsing the practice as “patriotic” in July. Still, there is no federal mandate in the United States. More than half of the fifty states have statewide mandates, and most airlines and the country’s ten largest retailers, including Walmart and Target, require masks at all times.
Without national mandates, large percentages of people choose to forgo masks. In the United Kingdom, for example, less than one-fifth of residents surveyed said they always wear a mask when they go out in public, leading the government to impose a countrywide mask requirement for shops and supermarkets in mid-July. Similarly, France this summer expanded its limited mask mandate to apply to all enclosed public spaces.
Even in places with mask laws, some people have refused to comply; bus drivers and shop workers have faced attacks when trying to enforce mask mandates. Punishments for not following rules vary greatly: the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon are imposing fines, Qatar and Cuba are threatening multiple years of jail time, and Madagascar is forcing rulebreakers to sweep streets.
In some cases, the widespread use of face masks appears to be limiting transmission rates, though there are many other factors influencing the severity of a country’s outbreak. Vietnam, for example, reported a ninety-nine-day streak without a single case caused by community spread after being among the first to impose a national mask mandate.
Although many countries without mandates still recommend wearing masks, some countries with low case counts have actively discouraged citizens from wearing them, arguing that the costs outweigh the benefits. For example, Norway’s health agency stated that transmission rates there are so low that two hundred thousand people on average would have to wear masks in order to prevent a single COVID-19 case. One of the few regions in the world without common mask mandates is Oceania, where ten countries have yet to report a single case of the virus.