Lots of people have strong opinions about whether or not we should all be wearing masks right now. The answer to that question is not as simple as some would have you believe.
There are two issues that must be resolved: 1) do health concerns warrant mask wearing, and 2) does submission to authority warrant mask wearing?
If masks provide the health benefits that are claimed, then the second question is not all that relevant. If a mask is a low-cost, low-effort, and effective means of protecting myself and others, then it makes sense to wear one, whether it’s mandatory or not. If I knew exactly when and where I might be exposed to a contagious virus, then I would not need to wear a mask unless I knew I was in the presence of the virus. If I knew that I was not a carrier, I would not need to wear a mask to protect others. However, I cannot know when and where I might be exposed, and I cannot necessarily know if I am a carrier who might inadvertently pass the virus to someone else. So, the question becomes a matter of whether the risks of transmission and the benefits of the mask are high enough to outweigh the downsides of wearing a mask.
Some people think this is an easy question. They argue that the risks are reasonably high (although impossible to know for sure), that a mask substantially reduces those risks (especially when worn by an infected person to reduce the spread at the source), and that the downsides are so low that it’s a no-brainer. This is the “accepted narrative” being put forth by the majority of health experts and public leaders right now (although a few months ago it was a different story).
Others point to statistics showing that the risk of death or serious illness from COVID-19 is not all that fearsome, studies that cast doubt on the efficacy of masks in mitigating the risk, and concerns that the downsides of masks are higher than what is often acknowledged. These concerns are typically countered by appeal to the “scientific consensus,” but scientific consensus is fickle and is sometimes influenced by things other than unbiased interpretation of the evidence (not only the interpretation, but even the generation and collection of “evidence” is subject to biases).
In light of doubts about the true health benefits of wearing masks, the second reason to wear masks is to comply with a mandate from a governing authority. Legal consequences notwithstanding, those who share Christian convictions recognize our obligation to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). This obligation to obey extends even to those rulers who are unjust (1 Peter 2:18). The only exception is when the authority demands something that is contrary to God’s law (Acts 4:18-19, 5:28-29, Ex. 1:17).
The question on this front is: what if the claim to authority is illegitimate? Even though the person or body making the claim does have legitimate authority, their authority has bounds. A teacher has legitimate authority in the classroom, an employer has legitimate authority in the workplace, a parent has legitimate authority in the home, elders have legitimate authority in the church, and civil governments have legitimate authority in the public sphere. But when an authority in one sphere oversteps the bounds of their authority, one is not being disobedient to ignore their demands. A demand by someone without the authority to make such a demand can be disregarded. This is not disobedience; it is simply a recognition that the demand is not authoritative. In some situations, one may choose to acquiesce to the demand for other reasons (to escape the threat of violence or other costs), but it may also be appropriate to refute the illegitimate authority claim.
Does a government official or body have the legitimate authority to require healthy (or presumed healthy) individuals to wear masks everywhere they might go? Does their authority extend to private enterprises (businesses, schools, churches, etc.)? Some say yes, some say no. What is the basis of their authority? Is it simply because they have the power to enforce their demand (might makes right)? Is the authority vested in them by the law? What if the demand exceeds the authority granted by the law? What if a law is crafted that exceeds or violates the authority granted by the constitution? Does the authority rest in the individual(s) representing the government, or in the legal code that established the government? If a state constitution does not give a governor the authority to mandate the wearing of masks, and if one remains unconvinced of the health benefits, then is it still necessary to “submit” to the illegitimate authority claim? Is it better to stand up against the illegitimate authority claim? What if, instead of a mask, the government mandated that certain elements of the population wear an armband with a yellow star? Do Christians have an obligation to obey such a command, or would compliance only be recommended under duress to avoid the threat of penalty?
Given that there are doubts about the medical necessity of mass mask-wearing, and doubts about the legitimacy of governmental mandates to wear masks, I accept that there are good people who have good reasons to think that we should all be wearing masks, and I accept that there are good people who have good reasons to think that we should not all be wearing masks.