Mask Mandates – Unknown Social and Behavioral Consequences?

Angie SzumlinskiStudies

Recommendations to wear non-medical face masks to control the spread of COVID-19 vary widely and have changed over time. At the beginning of the pandemic, some countries advised against wearing masks, partly because the supply of highly protective medical N95 masks was too low. In June 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) changed their recommendations and now recommends that healthy people wear non-medical masks in settings where physical distancing cannot be achieved.

Many states have mandatory requirements for facemasks in public places and offer no exceptions unless masks are contraindicated due to a medical condition. So, what are the long-term effects of wearing a face mask? Honestly, we really don’t know; however, a study published on July 14, 2020 found that independent of policies, wearing masks is seen as a social contract wherein compliant people perceive each other more positively and non-compliance is socially sanctioned. Mask wearing is also related to adhering to other protective behaviors as it signals prosocial concerns.

Also, of note, modeling results suggest that “universal (80%) adoption of moderately (50%) effective masks could prevent on the order of 17-45% of projected deaths over two months” (calculated for New York state). While uptake under a voluntary policy is reasonably high, it is still not sufficient to meet these required thresholds. The article concludes with “should countries or communities want people to wear masks (i.e., to curb local outbreaks or to reduce transmission in future waves of the pandemic), introducing a mandatory policy along with explicit communication of the benefits of mask wearing (risk reduction, mutual protection, positive social signaling) and the benefits of the mandatory policy (fairness, less stigmatization, higher effectiveness) appears advisable.”

Social and Behavioral Consequences of Mask Policies During the COVID-19 Pandemic