If we can do it with our votes, why not try it with our public health?

A national campaign to encourage mask wearing, including the distribution of free masks, would help to check the pandemic.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, and Democratic lawmakers have introduced a bill that would allocate $5 billion in federal funding to deliver face masks to every American household through the U.S. Postal Service as the nation struggles with rising coronavirus cases in multiple states.

The legislation would direct the funds to the domestic production of face masks through the Defense Production Act and other means. Although the face coverings would be provided through the Postal Service, the bill would also require that they be distributed to homeless people and that mask-pickup sites be designated in communities. Along with the masks, the legislation would require the government to pass out a one-page flyer with information about masks and how to wear them.

More than three dozen Democratic lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors. Not one Republican signed on.

“Providing all of our people with high-quality, reusable masks without cost could save tens of thousands of lives and avoid hundreds of billions of dollars in economic harm,” Sanders said in a statement.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a leading member of the White House’s COVID-19 task force, told a Senate committee last month he would support any program that made masks more accessible and widely worn.

The evidence suggests that wearing masks reduces the chances of catching coronavirus and spreading it. President Trump has been the main impediment to mask-wearing, choosing to turn a vital public health measure into a sign of tribal identity. Fauci nevertheless has persisted in his message.

And it is hardly the first time Fauci has tried to get Americans to adopt the simple, lifesaving practice; he’s been reiterating it for months.

“There’s no doubt that wearing masks protects you and gets you to be protected. So it’s people protecting each other,” Fauci said in response to a question from Sanders. “Anything that furthers the use of masks, whether it is giving out free masks or any other mechanism, I am thoroughly in favor of.”

This is a bold and courageous idea that deserves consideration, as states struggle against the pandemic.

Earlier this month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance urging all Americans to wear face masks to stem the spread of COVID-19 after mounting evidence suggested universal mask-wearing could be extremely effective in containing it. Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has issued a mandate, effective Aug. 1, that all Vermonters need to wear a mask when in public.

Congressional lawmakers this week pointed to a Goldman Sachs analysis that found mask-wearing could result in $1 trillion in the economic benefits through avoidance of strict lockdown measures.

“We are the wealthiest country on Earth, yet our health care workers are still facing a shortage of N-95s, our essential workers are having to purchase their own protective face masks, and far too many vulnerable Americans are being left to figure out how to procure this basic need,” Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, said in a statement. “Congress has a responsibility to step up where the White House has abdicated its responsibility and ensure every family has the equipment they need to stay safe. … If we’re asking folks to wear a mask, which is absolutely essential, it’s on us to provide one.”

We all know there are no guarantees, and the anti-maskers maintain any mandate is an infringement on personal liberty. (Trump has said he has no intention of issuing a national mask mandate, preferring to leave that decision to state and local governments.)

The bill faces long odds. The Democratic-run House, GOP-controlled Senate and Trump administration are focused on negotiations related to a new coronavirus relief package, and the sides remain far apart. The House passed a $3 trillion bill in May that the GOP criticized as a Democratic wish list, and Senate Republicans answered this week with a $1 trillion package that Democrats called woefully inadequate.

The New York Times threw its weight behind it, stating in an editorial, “The United States needs to remedy a parallel failure to construct adequate testing infrastructure, and rules need to be followed.”

Khanna pointed out that if we can afford a $740 billion defense budget, we can afford to send every American a face mask.

Then we’d be covered.

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