State Governments Make Statement that Masks are Essential by Exempting them from Sales Tax

Abigail Heeter

Associate Editor

Loyola University of Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

The coronavirus is still rampant in our country rendering an average of 96,275 new cases per day, and legislatures are attempting to stop the spread by any means necessary. One of the most recent innovative ideas by some state lawmakers is to emphasize the use of wearing masks by eliminating the sales tax on the purchase of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The importance of ‘masking’

The debate on the effectiveness of masks has become political in light of the recent coronavirus pandemic despite many health experts encouraging their use. CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield stated, “cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of [corona]virus.” A pre-print study (not yet peer-reviewed) was posted in August found that weekly increases in per capita mortality were four times lower in places where masks were the norm or recommended by the government, compared with other regions. Dr. Francis Collins has predicted that the use of masks by everyone in the United States could save more than 130,000 lives this winter. Overall, science leans towards recommending the use of masks as they can greatly help stop the spread of the virus, and many lawmakers are following this advice.

Creative tax solutions to the mask debate

Currently, there are tax exemptions for hospitals and government agencies in regard to their purchases of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Some states have created specific exemptions based on the increased demand and need for PPE since the Coronavirus pandemic has begun. On April 7, 2020, the governor of California passed an order granting state agencies exemption from sales tax on purchases of PPE and related items. This order will expire after the state of emergency in California concludes. In New York, manufacturers can currently receive up to $100,000 of sales tax exemption on the purchase of equipment used for making PPE. Michigan has pending legislation that, if passed, would exempt businesses from sales tax on PPE.

Connecticut also currently has an exemption of sales tax for PPE items. This exemption is applicable to “any item of clothing or protective equipment worn by an employee for protection during the course of the employee’s employment. This exemption applies to goggles/safety glasses, face shields/masks, respirators, gloves, filtering face masks, protective aprons, and encapsulating chemical protective suits. However, this exemption only applies to those who are buying PPE equipment for work purposes.

New Jersey is the first state to propose a tax exemption for the personal use of PPE instead. Since the coronavirus pandemic started, New Jersey has made masks mandatory in public spaces. Recently, a New Jersey legislator, Bill Moen, has proposed an elimination of state sales tax on PPE, such as masks. Currently, all essential items such as sanitary products, medicine, grocery store foods, certain medical equipment needed for personal use are exempted from sales tax in New Jersey. Bill Moen, stated that his reasoning for this proposal was to give their citizens a financial break in these trying times, but to make a statement of how important the use of masks are by labeling them as essential.

A state senator in Michigan, Aric Nesbitt, has also introduced a similar bill to help try and stop the spread of coronavirus. The proposed bill would cover masks, face shields, respirators, gloves, safety glasses, disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and soap.

Impact of state governments encouraging the use of masks

These types of amendments to state tax laws are possible by acting in conformity with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. There is no explicit provision that allows for these creative forms of relief but there is broad deference given to the states to help their citizens get through these tough times.

For most people, these sales tax exemptions won’t be a significant enough savings to incentivize the purchase of masks for those who were not already anticipating purchasing them. While the elimination of a sales tax likely won’t save consumers a large amount of money, in these uncertain times even a small savings can have an impact on a lot of Americans. More importantly, enactments of law such as exemptions of sales tax on PPE is a statement by state governments that PPE, such as masks, are essential during these times. These types of laws will hopefully shift American’s perspectives on the use of masks and the understanding of their importance.