The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cheering on planes aside, Americans are divided on ending mask mandate

(Charlie Riedel/AP)
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After a federal judge ended the government’s mandate for wearing masks on mass transit, the stories began rolling in. Pilots hopped on the intercom midflight, informing passengers that they could remove their masks at last. Passengers celebrated. V-M Day had arrived at last.

But, as with so many anecdotes these days, those captured only a subset of opinion. A few pilots lifted the mandate midflight, not all. Some passengers cheered. Others fretted quietly. The lifting of the mandate was seen as liberation by some but as a new source of worry for many. The worry is often unnecessarily heightened, yes — but so is the idea that the coronavirus is simply another background illness.

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Last month, the Kaiser Family Foundation released polling evaluating how people felt about the federal mask mandate for trains and planes. The results were evenly divided: Half of the country thought the mandate should be extended after its initial mid-April deadline; about half didn’t.

The partisan divide is predictable, certainly, and we’ll come back to that. But notice those second two splits.

At the bottom is the divide between those who do and don’t have a serious health condition. Most of those who do think that the mandate should be preserved for the obvious reason that its intent is to limit the coronavirus’s spread and, therefore, to reduce the risk that those individuals will be infected. Those without such a condition mostly supported lifting the mandate. But the divide here is narrow, because partisanship was a stronger predictor of views.

You can see that in the vaccination responses. Those who have been fully vaccinated against the virus — and, therefore, are at the least risk of serious illness or death — are far more likely to have supported an extension of the mandate. That’s because vaccination status has long been intertwined with how people view the virus. If you think it’s a serious risk, you will get vaccinated and want to see more people wearing masks. If you don’t think it’s a serious risk, you won’t. And those views overlap with party, as they have for most of the pandemic.

We can see that in polling from YouGov. Since the summer of 2020, YouGov has been asking Americans how often they wear masks outside their homes. Through the winter of 2020-2021, about three-quarters of Republicans and nearly all Democrats said they were wearing masks. When case totals fell last spring — and many mask mandates ended — Republicans stopped reporting regular mask-wearing. They did not resume wearing masks even as the delta and omicron variants arrived in July and December 2021, respectively.

As a result, Democrats are far more likely than Americans overall to wear masks regularly and Republicans far less likely (as shown in the graph at bottom). Over the past year, that divide has widened.

Of course, the nature of the pandemic has changed. The omicron variant proved to be much better at evading vaccines and masks even as studies indicated that it yielded less severe health outcomes. That contributed to a sense both that infection was inevitable and that infection wasn’t a big deal, leading even Democratic leaders to begin moving away from mandates.

It’s worth noting, though, that both the contagiousness of omicron and its health effects are often misunderstood.

To the first point, experts still believe that high-quality masks, such as N95s, are effective at reducing the risk of infection from even the more contagious variant of the virus. Effectively communicating expert understanding of the virus — and, critically, how that understanding changes — has proved to be a central point of failure during the pandemic, particularly in the face of (often partisan) efforts to undercut that communication. But masking has never been a works-or-doesn’t proposition. Instead, the choice is between a reduce-risk-or-don’t, and masks do reduce risk.

This doesn’t mean that mandates are necessarily right, of course. There is also evidence that individuals can layer protections for themselves in a way that protects them effectively: vaccinations, boosters, high-quality masks. This is almost certainly why Republican-voting parts of the country recorded far more deaths per capita in both the delta and omicron waves: It wasn’t that mandates were lifted, but, once no mandates were in place, Republicans were more likely not to wear masks just as they were less likely to get vaccinated.

It’s also worth noting that “lower risk of negative health outcomes” doesn’t mean “no risk.” If we compare new hospitalizations with new cases two weeks prior over the course of the past 20 months, we see that the delta surge (last summer) led to a big spike in hospitalizations that wasn’t matched by omicron (in January). But of those who did end up in the hospital, the rate at which they succumbed to the virus was not much different during the more recent surge.

That, of course, is in part because those who ended up in the hospital were unlikely to have been vaccinated.

This is a rough estimate of effects, certainly. Again, the available evidence suggests that omicron is less likely to lead to averse health outcomes. But lower risk isn’t no risk. The country is still seeing 500 deaths a day from the virus and thousands of hospitalizations a week. It has been worse than a bad flu season, without the seasonality. And there are ancillary questions about extended negative effects of the virus that don’t result in hospitalization or deaths.

Mask mandates were and are contentious. Many Americans loathe masks, hating the discomfort and inconvenience of wearing them. Others see the idea of such mandates more nefariously, as some effort to control the public for no good reason. The reality is less exotic: Government officials sought to reduce the spread of the virus and prevent illness and death using what tools they had at their disposal. The extent to which it worked will be a subject of study for years to come.

What is clear is that when the federal mandate was canceled Monday, not everyone was cheering.