Nothing will define the COVID-19 era more than the mask. Once largely associated with surgical theaters, masking has now become a requirement for entering a grocery store, or even in some places for just walking down a street. In the United States, recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that as people become vaccinated, outdoor masking may be less and less necessary. But the issue of mask wearing remains contentious among Americans, as it has been since early in the pandemic. What are the divergent ideas filtering the facts here?

According to Claudia Deane, the vice president of research at Pew Research Center, Americans are on the whole supportive of indoor masking restrictions in contexts like public transit but are deeply split along partisan lines on the health dangers of the virus itself, and so the need to wear a mask to stop it. Deane sees attitudes towards masking in the context of American political polarization. Different Americans are using—and trusting—different news sources. They’re coming to different conclusions about the severity of COVID-19, and, by consequence, about the necessity of mask wearing.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy: How have attitudes about mask wearing changed since the CDC and other authorities first recommended it last year?

Claudia Deane: We first asked about masking in June 2020. And what we found at the time was that the share of people who were wearing masks varied a lot geographically. The pandemic was still on the coasts, in urban areas. It varied by whether your county was heavily impacted. We’ve seen a trend throughout that older people have been more likely to want to mask, congruent with their higher risk for the disease. There are some educational and racial patterns to it as well.

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