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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Thinking Ethically about Mask and Vaccine Mandates

A woman receiving a vaccine shot from a nurse

A woman receiving a vaccine shot from a nurse

Margaret R. McLean


Margaret R. McLean is a senior fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and a senior lecturer of religious studies at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

The FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for people 16 and over should ignite vaccination rates among those who were hesitant before this final step and spark more vaccine mandates as businesses, schools, and others seek to create safer workplaces and learning environments.

As infection rates continue to roller coaster, the California legislature deliberates a controversial bill (AB 455) mandating vaccines for the public and private workforce. This proposal would require every worker in the state to verify vaccination status or face weekly COVID testing. The bill will be put to a vote sometime next year.

Currently, in response to the highly transmissible delta variant, most Californians must mask-up indoors, including those who are fully vaccinated.

Despite airwave and Twitter rhetoric to the contrary, a recent survey of 1,088 adults by USA TODAY and Ipsos found that most Americans believe that safeguarding each other and the common good is more important than personal choice in deciding whether to compel people to get vaccinated or to put on a protective face covering. An impressive 72% of participants designated mask mandates "a matter of health and safety," not an infringement on personal liberty, and 62% supported required vaccinations for workers.

Both vaccines and masks are vital and necessary means for keeping people safe and healthy during this unpredictable pandemic. The current vaccines are safe and prevent severe illness and death, unclogging emergency rooms and Intensive Care Units and protecting our health system and the physicians, nurses, housekeepers, and others who work in it.

Sometimes, especially when the right thing to do is inconvenient or unpleasant, we need a nudge—or, in this case, a shove—to do the right thing. Wouldn’t you save a life if you could? You can—vaccines and masks are superpowers that literally save lives.

Some of us may need additional incentives to engage our superpowers and mask-up or to go to the hospital or the pharmacy or the pop-up station for a vaccine. Mandates—in schools, in the workplace, at public events—that protect people and save lives are beneficial to everyone, especially young children who are currently ineligible for the vaccine and trust us to safeguard them.

Asking employees to be vaccinated before coming into the workplace and to wear a mask while there is both fair and reasonable. However, there needs to be time for conversation and understanding why employees may be hesitant to roll up their sleeves or slip on a mask. Talking with knowledgeable trusted friends or mentors can help. Some people may need medical exemptions to the vaccine or mask mandate. Employers and schools should consider accommodations—remote work and distance learning, for example—for those who cannot be vaccinated.

I would prefer that everyone simply would do what needs to be done to protect themselves and others. But what is happening in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere tells a different story, a tragic tale of preventable illness and unnecessary death. We are better than this and mandates will push us all to be our better selves—to protect ourselves and others from the health, economic, and social consequences of unchecked pandemic. We can do this; mandates will help us become the best version of ourselves in these uncertain times.


Sep 7, 2021