Public Opinion of Face Masks in Students Reveals People More Likely to Wear Masks if Businesses Say So

Emma Ozark

Emma Ozark/ Stoutonia

A public opinion study on face mask policy in University of Wisconsin-Stout students, conducted by an applied social science student, Deon Cannon, for his senior capstone, indicates that regardless of political affiliation, people are more inclined to wear a face mask if a business or institution mandates it. 

Masks — a certified N95 or cloth mask with filter — are regarded by the CDC and Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services as the primary way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 when going out in public.  Wearing two masks is now the new recommended precaution in light of spreading a new, potentially more contagious strain of the virus. 

That said, mask-wearing has become a politicized issue, with some Republican officials downplaying or denying the existence of the virus, with, for example, former President Trump inaccurately comparing it to the flu

While COVID has reached “uncontrolled spread” across all states, according to Covidexitstragegy.org, how rapidly it will continue to spread will be dependent on what public policies are adopted nationally.

Applied social science student, now graduate, Deon Canon looked to explore this on a local level, sending out  surveys to 750 participants via email in November 2020 to collect their opinions on a public mask policy. Canon, aiming for more nuanced, qualitative data, asked both yes/no questions and questions requiring written explanations. 

The results for face mask policy were primarily broken up into three categories: pro, anti, and neutral. 

Pro-mask policy respondents most often had stopping the spread to others as the most important priority. Anti-mask reasoning varied more than the reasons of pro-maskers. According to the survey, the reasoning was either some variation or combination of the following reasons: A. their “freedom of choice,” B. that people, not policy, should have ultimate power to decide if they should wear masks, or C. that they were not able to trust the government. Some were not completely against mask policy, but said only at-risk people should wear masks. 

Neutral-mask policy respondents had two primary concerns behind their reasoning: they either A. questioned “if such a mask policy is actually enforceable, and if it is, would it be enforced on those who are disadvantaged?” or B. stated that the state/locals and/or businesses should decide whether or not they should enforce a mask policy. 

While the survey found that participants from both main political parties do wear masks in public, political partisanship on the issue remained high. According to the survey, Republicans were 50% more likely to be anti-mask, with 50% of Democrats more likely to support a nationwide mask policy. Canon clarifies that the survey’s small sample size is misleading, and he said the Republican percentage would likely be much higher. 

However, regardless of political party or whether people are for or against masks, it is agreed across the board that America has not and continues to not handle the pandemic well. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all agree that the government being wishy-washy on facts about masks, and lacking a clear and concise message, made them untrustworthy. 72% of respondents said they “were either extremely or somewhat dissatisfied with the American’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

An additional goal for Canon was finding out how participants got their news affected whether or not they supported wearing masks. 37% of participants said social media was their primary news source. According to Canon’s Survey, it appears the combination of the unclear message from the government, combined with the distorting nature of social media, fed into the politicization we are facing with masks for UW-Stout students. Canon said, “The government needs to work with social media companies to figure out how we can get information accurately to people for future events.”  

Most critically, people are more willing to abide by private industry rules over federal government policy. According to the survey, “74% said they would wear face masks if the business has a face mask policy.”

Canon feels fairly safe at UW-Stout. “Compared to all the other UW schools, Stout has handled it pretty well; LaCrosse, Eau Claire, and Madison had a bad outbreak, but at Stout we didn’t have to close because of our cases,” he said. However, Cannon noted cases will continue to rise if we don’t work together with local businesses.