Since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, evidence supporting the widespread use of face masks has steadily accumulated. In light of recent research, government officials and the medical community have reached a compelling consensus: Wearing masks can significantly slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Among the American public, however, mask requirements are still the source of raging controversy. From raucous public hearings to viral confrontations, the creation and enforcement of mask requirements remain subjects of intense debate.
We surveyed more than 1,000 individuals to analyze their views of mask regulations, inquiring about mask use in their communities and the mechanisms of enforcement they would find appropriate. Which government entities should set mask rules, if any? Which punishments should be administered to those who refuse to comply?
To see our respondents' views on these controversial questions, keep reading.
Mandating Masks: Varied Support Across the Political Spectrum
According to experts, the issue of wearing and requiring masks has become increasingly politicized in recent months, fueled by the country's cultural and partisan divides. But, our findings indicate that the vast majority of Americans recognize the value of masks in public spaces, whatever their political allegiances.
Eighty-three percent of respondents believed that masks should always be worn in public spaces, while another 15% believed that masks should be worn in specific scenarios. Interestingly, younger people were most likely to endorse masks, where baby boomers were most skeptical of their benefits. These findings resonate with some existing research suggesting that older Americans are less concerned about COVID-19, despite facing more medical risk than younger people.
Turning to political differences, Democrats were mostly likely to support masks always being worn in public (88%). Yet, 82% of Republicans also supported this position, reflecting party leaders' recent embrace of masks as a crucial public safety measure. Independents, meanwhile, were the least likely to say masks should always be worn in public – and the most likely to believe they were never necessary.
Most respondents also felt certain that specific kinds of masks should be required in public, rather than just any form of face covering. These views may be informed by evolving evidence that certain kinds of masks are particularly effective in preventing transmission. Additionally, 15% of respondents said they would support exemption to mask requirements for those with qualifying medical conditions. While physicians say masks rarely exacerbate medical problems, they may be challenging for individuals with developmental or psychiatric disorders.
COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges for America's federalist system, raising questions of power and responsibility for federal, state, and local governments. On the matter of mask requirements, these issues clearly arise: Which government bodies set mask regulations, and which entities should enforce them?
A majority of respondents, including 78% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans, felt that decisions related to masks should be made at the federal level. This view stands in contrast to the Trump administration's approach, which has deferred to states and localities on the matter of mask requirements. Independents, however, were less enthusiastic about national mask regulations and the most likely to prefer state governments decide on mask use.
Interestingly, Republicans were more likely than Democrats to say the president should have ultimate authority concerning mask mandates. Of course, these views may reflect the party affiliation of the current president, rather than long-held opinions of the proper separation of powers.
Nearly a quarter of respondents thought state governors should have the final say on masks, while 8% supported city mayors having that authority. And despite forceful shows of support from "anti-maskers" around the country, the view that masks should not be mandated at all was relatively unpopular. Just 3% believed that no government entity had the authority to make them wear one.
When it came to enforcement, however, an array of opinions emerged. Thirty-nine percent said law enforcement should enforce mask mandates, while 22% believed the National Guard should do so. Yet many law enforcement officials have voiced resistance to enforcing mask mandates, arguing that such actions might infringe on civil liberties and exhaust their resources. Perhaps in light of these concerns, some respondents felt enforcement should fall to business owners and regular citizens.
Consequences and Confrontations
If mask mandates are widely ignored, even the most comprehensive regulations won't truly protect the public. Accordingly, questions of enforcement, penalties, and public pressure are crucial considerations. Who enforces mask requirements currently, and which consequences would be appropriate for those who refuse to comply?
Approximately 20% of respondents felt that mask regulations were not being sufficiently enforced in their local areas. These worries might reflect who is doing the enforcing: 59% said business owners were enforcing mask requirements, which might leave public spaces unaccounted for. On the other hand, 50% of respondents said law enforcement was enforcing their local mask rules, presumably with more authority than private citizens.
Considering the consequences of mask noncompliance, just 15% felt people without masks should be charged with a crime. However, there was wide support for monetary repercussions: 83% said mask violators should be fined for their transgressions. These proposed fines were hardly cheap, with respondents suggesting a $225 penalty, on average. Some municipalities have issued fines of this size or larger, including several towns and cities in Southern California.
In the absence of law enforcement, 30% of respondents had also taken matters into their own hands and confronted someone else for not wearing a mask. Though these interactions can quickly become heated, a tempered approach may prove more effective. Experts recommend keeping things cordial: People probably won't respond well to public shaming.
Responsibility and Rhetoric
Though our findings reveal many differences of opinion, they also demonstrate significant consensus about the potential of masks to protect the public health. Indeed, our respondents' views diverged about the practical details of requiring masks in public and not the basic premise that they can slow the virus's spread.
Perhaps this pattern provides reason for hope: With the exception of a small portion of dissenters, we are debating the proper way to achieve a shared priority. With this recognition of mutual goals, can we set aside heated rhetoric and engage in respectful debate about effective regulation?
Moreover, our findings should empower individuals and business owners in their own efforts to encourage the use of masks. While asking others to wear masks may not feel entirely comfortable, our results suggest that the vast majority of Americans will support an individual's decision to do so.
When it comes to wearing a mask or observing other public health measures, visual reminders can be a powerful way to encourage personal responsibility. That's where Signs.com, the industry leader in custom signs and visual branding, can help your business keep your employees and customers safe. From custom face masks, to decals and signs requiring social distancing, to banners announcing that you're back open, our team can deliver the custom products you need.
Using the Amazon MTurk service, we surveyed 1,008 people on their perceptions of mask use and enforcement. The average age of our respondents was 36.6, and there was a standard deviation of 11.09.
The number of respondents identifying as supporting each political party is as as follows:
This survey did not have any qualifications. It did contain an attention-check question to help ensure respondents were paying attention throughout the study. This study relies on self-reporting, which can come with its own limitations, and the data presented have not been weighted.
Fair Use Statement
As mask regulations continue to prompt public debate, we welcome you to share the images and information presented in this project. We hope that doing so will highlight areas of consensus about how masks should be worn and facilitate respectful conversations concerning public safety. If you do share our work, we ask that you do so strictly for noncommercial purposes. Additionally, please include a link to this page so that others can access the project in full.