In Fauci’s eyes, the knowledge base last spring justified his opposition to mask‐wearing in the community. First, there was a lack of evidence that masks actually worked in reducing transmission of the virus back then, he said, at least outside of hospital settings. Second, public health officials also thought asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission of the virus was rare.
If the virus was only spread by those coughing or with fevers, most of whom would be isolating at home or in the hospital, then community‐wide face coverings would be pretty useless. It was only when it became clearer masks did help and that presymptomatic and asymptomatic spread was common, Fauci said, that it made sense to encourage people to wear them when necessary.
At least, that’s the official line. But there’s an obvious problem with Fauci’s reasoning here. An absence of evidence of masks’ effectiveness and hunches about how the virus spread might have justified warning the public that masks were no silver bullet or, indeed, that their voluntary use should not be seen as a substitute for social distancing. But given masks were an extremely low‐cost means of potentially mitigating risk for individuals, the risk‐to‐benefit ratio was clearly favoring permissive guidance on their use.
“The science,” in other words, never justified Fauci telling people specifically not to wear masks, rather than remaining neutral. That harder opposition ultimately came because of Fauci’s third argument — that a failure to dissuade people from wearing them back then would have exacerbated mask shortages, leaving healthcare workers without access to crucial personal protective equipment.