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Your politics and race predict your likelihood of wearing a mask

As several states across the nation relax strict stay-at-home requirements, imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, and begin allowing more businesses to open, the question of whether the government can require people to wear masks has become explosive.

This was most apparent in Oklahoma, where on May 1, Stillwater officials were forced to revoke a mandate requiring businesses to ensure that anyone who entered was wearing a face mask. Within a few hours, store employees had been threatened with violence, including in one case with a firearm. That same day, a Flint, Mich., store security guard was shot and killed after turning away a customer whose child was not wearing a mask.

We looked into who does and does not wear masks, and why. Here's what we found.

Our research

We drew on a nationally representative, multi-wave survey conducted by the online polling firm Lucid to examine who has changed their behavior to comply with public health recommendations to reduce the pandemic's spread. When we analyzed results from the first wave of 4,081 people, conducted in March, we found clear partisan differences. Respondents who live in states with Democratic governors were 16% more likely to report having changed their usual behaviors to combat COVID-19 than Republicans.

In the second wave, which ran from April 14 to April 21, we asked 3,060 people about a wider range of possible actions, including asking respondents if they had been wearing a mask or scarf in public.

Wearing a protective mask varies by party and by race and ethnicity.

As you can see in the figure below, Republicans are less likely than Democrats to say they have been wearing a mask in public. An overwhelming majority, or 73%, of self-identified Democrats report that they do so, only 59% of Republicans and 58% of independents report doing so.

We also found that rates of mask-wearing differed by race and ethnicity. Communities of color reported that they were more likely to have taken this important step; 82% of Asian Americans, 71% of Latinos and 74% of African Americans said they had been wearing a mask or scarf, while only 66% of whites said the same.

People who know someone who's had the virus are more likely to wear masks.

We asked respondents who said that they have worn a mask or scarf in public whether they worry about being mistaken for a criminal while doing so. The answers show a clear distinction by race and ethnicity, with 32% of Latinos and 30% of African Americans worried about this, more than either whites or Asian Americans, at 19% for both groups.

Reported mask-wearing worry is even higher for black and brown men: 38% of Latino men and 36% of African-American men worry about police perceptions when they wear masks.

Why are minorities more likely to wear masks in public despite recognizing that this may lead to discrimination? We believe that this is a result of the racial and ethnic inequalities in COVID-19 infection and death rates. As has been widely reported, racial and ethnic minorities have been more likely to be infected and to die from the coronavirus than non-Hispanic whites.

Touched by COVID

Our study asked respondents if they, someone in their immediate family, someone at work, or someone they know personally outside their immediate family or work, had been sick with virus. Thirty-two percent of racial and ethnic minorities said yes, more than whites at 25%.

This may help explain the gap in mask wearing. Respondents who know someone who has been ill with the virus are 40% more likely to report wearing a mask in public than those who do not. Nevertheless, whites who know someone who has had the virus are 11% less likely to wear a mask than racial and ethnic minorities.

Even within racial groups, however, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to wear protective coverings. For example, Asian-American Democrats are seven percentage points more likely to report wearing a mask or scarf in public than Asian Republicans. For African Americans, Latinos, and whites, that gap is 14 percentage points.

Recognizing these variations, policymakers may wish to fine-tune their public health messaging to reach different groups in different ways.

Gabriel R. Sanchez is professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. Edward D. Vargas is an assistant professor in the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University.

 

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