What happened? 

The United States’ COVID-19 response has been mixed in many regards, but a majority of states have implemented some form of safety measures. Thus far, the most uniform policy has been requiring people to wear masks when outside their homes, with over thirty states mandating mask-wearing in some or all public spaces. In response, a significant number of citizens have protested what they consider to be an attack on their rights. Many shoppers have refused to comply with store or state policies, citing that mask-wearing is a personal choice and becoming violent when asked to put on a mask or leave. Violence over mask-wearing, partial shutdowns, and social distancing has erupted nationwide, from California to New Jersey. In early September, the CDC even issued guidelines entitled “Limiting Workplace Violence Associated with COVID-19 Prevention Policies in Retail and Services Businesses” in an effort to promote safety.


The ruling of Jacobson v. Massachusetts in 1905 found that states had the police power to handle health emergencies. While the Court acknowledged individual freedoms, Justice Marshall Harlan wrote in his decision that people do not have the right to refuse state health measures like the smallpox vaccination. Harlan used social-compact theory, noting that citizens have a duty “to one another and to society as a whole.”


The Supreme Court case Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905) set the precedent that states can mandate safety policies and procedures to combat health emergencies. The global pandemic of COVID-19 certainly counts as a health emergency. Thus, states have the responsibility to protect their citizens by implementing proven prevention measures, like limiting public spaces and businesses’ maximum capacities and requiring social distancing or even mask-wearing when in public. In fact, these measures are far less intrusive than vaccination, meaning Jacobson v. Massachusetts definitely applies in this situation. The claim that mandated mask-wearing infringes upon citizens’ Constitutional rights is unsubstantiated and highly invalid considering the Court’s past rulings. The government not only can enforce mask-wearing and other virus mitigation and social distancing measures, but should do so when faced with a health threat as serious as COVID-19.