The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

73% of Democrats are wearing masks to fight coronavirus. Only 59% of Republicans are.

And people of color are more likely to wear masks than white people

Protective masks are displayed on mannequins outside a store at Venice Beach in Los Angeles on Wednesday. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg) (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News)

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 store security guard in Flint, Mich., 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.

How we did 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 percent more likely to report having changed their usual behaviors to combat covid-19 than than those who live in states with Republican governors.

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 whether they had been wearing a mask or scarf in public.

Where are people less likely to obey coronavirus restrictions? Republican counties.

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, 73 percent, of self-identified Democrats report that they do so, while only 59 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of independents say the same.

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 step; 82 percent of Asian Americans, 71 percent of Latinos and 74 percent of African Americans said they had been wearing a mask or scarf, while only 66 percent of whites said the same.

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

We asked all of the 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 percent of Latinos and 30 percent of African Americans worried about this — more than either whites or Asian Americans, at 19 percent for both groups.

Reported mask-wearing is even higher for black and brown men: Thirty-eight percent of Latino men and 36 percent 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.

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

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This may help explain the gap in mask-wearing. Respondents who know someone who has been ill with the virus are 40 percent more likely to report wearing a mask in public than those who do not. Nevertheless, whites who know someone who’s had the virus are 11 percent 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 American 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.

The coronavirus may be boosting Republican support for family and medical leave.

Gabriel R. Sanchez is a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

Edward D. Vargas (@edwarddvargas) is an assistant professor in the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University.