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Americans might prefer vaccine mandates to mask mandates

In a phone briefing with reporters, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on July 27 urged vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in some cases, including in schools. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Brendan McDermid/The Washington Post)
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It seems like ancient history right now, but there was a time in which a vast majority of Americans agreed on certain things when it came to the coronavirus pandemic. And high on that list was masks. Even as then-President Donald Trump was eschewing them last year, Americans were on a very different page. An Associated Press-NORC poll in July 2020 showed that fully 75 percent of Americans supported not just wearing masks, but requiring them in public when you were around someone else. Just 13 percent disagreed. Even Republicans agreed with mandates, 58-27.

Then, as vaccinations took hold, health officials somewhat surprisingly relaxed those mandates and guidelines. And now, as they attempt to ramp them up again in response to outbreaks, the sledding is looking much tougher.

A new Monmouth University poll released Monday morning shows only a little more than half of Americans support “instituting, or reinstituting, face mask and social distancing guidelines in your state.” The split is 52 percent in favor vs. 46 percent opposed. And the partisan divides are about what you’d expect: While 85 percent of Democrats support this, about one-quarter of Republicans agree.

And this, it bears emphasizing, is a considerably lower bar than a mask mandate; it’s merely reinstituting mask and social distancing guidelines. It’s logical that could lead to mandates in some areas, and it has coincided with mandates in places such as Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Mo., and New Orleans. But it doesn’t require them itself. Yet this earns the support of only around half of Americans — far less than the three-fourths who supported full mandates as recently as December.

It’s also not the only evidence of declining appetite for mask mandates or even re-masking more broadly. A late-July poll showed that strongly blue California supported a statewide mask mandate just 49-39. That’s far shy of the overwhelming national support a year ago, as well as the 70 percent support in another California poll back in October. Support for an indoor mask mandate was higher recently in San Diego County, at 60 percent, but again that’s a bluer area of a blue state.

Interestingly, there might actually be as much or more appetite for a more intrusive mandate: vaccination. One survey released last month found that 64 percent of Americans support requiring everyone to get a coronavirus vaccine. Another also showed the number around 6 in 10.

Polling on the two topics is too limited and varied at this point to draw too many hard and fast conclusions. (We’re not always dealing with apples-to-apples comparisons.) But the idea that a mandatory vaccine might actually be more popular than merely strengthening masking and social distancing guidelines would sure seem to say something about where Americans are at with mitigation efforts.

An internal CDC report warns the delta variant of coronavirus appears to cause more severe illness than earlier variants and spreads as easily as chickenpox. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

It’s perhaps somewhat logical that this might indeed be happening. The strengthening of masking and other guidelines is in large part a response the unvaccinated spreading the virus and unvaccinated people disproportionately becoming seriously ill in places such as Florida. The strong majority of Americans who are vaccinated might resent being dragged back into masking along with their unvaccinated neighbors, feeling they had done their part and others aren’t holding up their ends of the bargain.

In addition, it’s incontrovertible that vaccination is much, much more effective than masking. If you’ve gotten vaccinated yourself, you probably believe that’s the much simpler and better solution. But there are of course the very thorny issues of mandating people getting an injection — a much thornier issue than making them put a piece of cloth over their face in public. At least for now, that personal rights issue appears to be taking a back seat, with Americans favoring a more-intrusive mandate because it’s more effective and gets others to comply with a mitigation measure they’ve already taken.

But that doesn’t necessarily fully account for the increased resistance to masking and mask mandates. And this reflects the difficulty in relaxing guidelines or mandates and then strengthening them again — and somewhat predictably so. That was actually a big question when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its masking guidelines: Whether they could ever be successfully reinstituted if it came to that.

Even at the time, there was actually concern that the guidelines were being relaxed too quickly. A poll in March showed 56 percent of Americans thought that was the case. And epidemiologists were largely surprised by the guidance, thinking masking would need to be maintained into 2022. There seemed to be at least something of a calculation in the guidance: Show people the fruits of vaccination and perhaps give them in incentive.

There are probably many causes here, including the aforementioned resentment of the unvaccinated, exhaustion with masks, the continued anti-mask drumbeat on the right, and oftentimes changing and even conflicting guidance from health officials on masking. But the sum total is that it’s looking very difficult to convince a public that was once very much onboard with universal masking to go back to that place.