The Big Mask-erade: What do Americans Really Think About Face Masks and How Are Local Governments Getting Them to Cooperate?

Carmel Blanca

Carmel Blanca

Masks are here to stay. Therefore, understanding what your residents have to say about them is critical.

What is the Zencity data telling us?
Mask-related discourse generated nearly 10 million online resident interactions since the beginning of May across the Zencity Network of 150 US cities and counties. A spike in conversation took place during the second half of June, as reopening plans and state and local mask mandates came into effect. In the Mountain Plains Region this accounted for nearly 25% of the total resident discourse. Residents mostly discuss masks in the context of retail and restaurants, followed by conversations related to events and open spaces.

Diving into city-specific data reveals the different concerns residents are voicing when opposing masks regulations, these include – infringement of rights, medical exemptions and lack of evidence that masks help slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Zencity’s data also shows that while enforcement can be a sensitive issue, local authorities can increase positive sentiment and compliance by sharing short, informative and creative messaging about masks, supported by data and scientific evidence of their effectiveness.

For a detailed breakdown of mask-related discourse in your city or county sign into your Zencity Dashboard or schedule a call to learn more.

Almost 6 months into the pandemic, Americans are still divided on wearing masks. Despite recent research findings supporting the effectiveness of masks and the CDC’s recommendations that everyone wears a face mask in public, the lack of clear federal guidance leaves state and local government leaders with the challenge of setting their own policies. As a result of that, they are also challenged with their residents’ conflicting opinions on the matter.

Zencity analyzed over 9.7 million online interactions from over 150 cities and counties across the US to understand what Americans are actually saying about face masks. We also studied and analyzed official city communications and campaigns, to highlight best practices when it comes to encouraging residents to wear face covers. By understanding how residents are reacting to different face mask mandates, other local government leaders will be able to reach out to their communities in a way that resonates with them and increases compliance and cooperation.

Mask Mandates Escalate Online Reactions

As of today, policies regarding mask-wearing vary from state to state. In California, New York, Nevada and North Carolina rules requiring masks are in effect, but in states such as Arizona and Florida there has been a hesitance to issue a state mandate, leading mayors and local governments to impose their own local regulations.

This disparity is causing a spike in online public discourse on the topic of face masks, as more and more Americans are taking to social media platforms to voice their opinions, concerns and confusion. Zencity’s data detected over 9.7 million online interactions about face masks that have occurred during May and June. Interestingly, during the second half of June with reopening accelerated and as several states decided to delegate mandate-setting to local governments, public online discourse regarding face masks increased by over 300%.

This spike in Americans’ concern with face masks differs between ICMA regions. Interestingly, there is no clear correlation between the volume of online conversations regarding face coverings and the states in which they are required. For example, though only 3 out of the 14  Mountain Plains states require face masks, this region saw the highest increase in related discourse. In addition, there is no correlation between the discourse volume and the number of COVID-19 cases in each region. This suggests that not only regulation and enforcement are driving the public discourse, but also the lack thereof. 

Residents are Concerned about Local Businesses

When diving into the data we note that discourse surrounding face masks focuses primarily on businesses, with over 45% of interactions representing general comments about the local economy.  A further breakdown by topic reveals that residents are talking most about retail stores and shops, followed closely by restaurants, events & entertainment and parks & recreation.

Another common subject of interest is enforcement and the challenges businesses face in making sure that both employees and customers comply with face mask guidelines. For example, our data reveals that in one of Texas’ largest cities,  3,606 online interactions were related to enforcement, including comments that the burden of policing customers is a responsibility which should fall to the government and not business owners themselves. This insight highlighted the need to communicate more about the city’s approach to enforcing mask-wearing and what resources are available to businesses. 

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While some Americans consider face masks as the primary defense against COVID-19, others consider it a symbol of government intervention and a violation of their constitutional rights. In one Florida city a Zencity analysis revealed that 61% of resident feedback was in support of face covering and 39% opposing. Most of those against, stated they would not be wearing masks claiming it is unconstitutional and not the government’s place to decide. Others simply argued that masks have not yet proven to be effective – leading the city to understand it needs to better communicate the scientific findings about effectiveness of face masks.

Insight 1

Other recurring concerns that US residents have expressed are the potential health risks of wearing a mask and medical exemptions for those who can not wear a mask at all. For example, the most common concern in one North Carolina city is that breathing-in Co2 for extended periods of time is harmful. Residents also discussed how those suffering from anxiety disorders, as well as asthma and COPD will find it difficult to comply with face covering orders. This data served as an indication to the city that their communications about masks need to directly address these concerns.

Insight 2

Another interesting example is from one of our California cities where the colliding crises of COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests shifted residents’ main arguments about masks over time. As the insight below indicates, discourse with tones of solidarity about masks being a worthwhile, minor inconvenience for the safety of others gained some upward traction – from 10% in May to 12% in June. In comparison, claims about masks being ineffective and unconstitutional diminished. By using this comparison, the city was able to better understand the drivers of conversations and address them accordingly through communication and policy.

Insight 3

Interested to learn what residents are saying about reopening?

Check out our latest data report to understand residents’ attitudes towards the reopening of certain industries and business sectors.

Unmasking the Power of Communications

Getting your residents to actually wear the masks is tricky and is in part a behavioral issue. In times of heightened tensions between residents and police, masks enforcement is even more sensitive and challenging. Cities and counties are therefore turning to the power of good communications in an attempt to make masks a social norm and are using social enforcement as the means to keep that norm in place. 

Short, visual and concise messaging is key here. It is crucial for local governments to create clear messaging on the subject of masks by providing information and statistics, sharing constant findings from recent research, issuing specific guidelines or recommendations and going about it in creative ways. To help cities and counties effectively encourage face covering, we’ve gathered a few exemplary posts by local governments and highlighted best practices for messaging on masks. 

1. Keep. It. Short.

When it comes to communications, shorter is better. One of the most popular tweets by Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, IL simply read “Wear. Your. Masks. People”, while another successful tweet said “Hi. Wearing a mask isn’t about controlling your freedom. It’s about controlling the spread of COVID-19. #WearAMask. The City of Pittsburgh, PA is also keeping things short and simple, writing: “It’s simple. Wear a mask, #Pittsburgh”.

2. Let's Talk Numbers

Sharing statistics and the number of new cases in relevant regions can often speak louder than any catchy slogan or reasonable explanation. One of Bill Peduto’s, the Mayor of Pittsburgh, PA, most popular tweets opens with the number of new COVID-19 cases in their county. Similarly, Chicago, IL shared a graph to show exactly how face coverings and social distancing have slowed the spread of the virus in the city.

3. Be Informative

Media outlets and social media, in particular, are overwhelming residents with opinions, hashtags and conflicting messages. Residents are looking to official channels, owned by the different city departments, for direct information and reliable updates that are becoming harder to find. The City of Spokane, WA directly tackled this problem by sharing an informative brochure on the do’s and don’ts of face covering. Another great example comes from The City of Carlsbad, CA who shared a simple infographic on how face covering affects the risk of spread.

4. Get Creative. Get Visual.

Out of the box initiatives and great visuals are always a great way to catch your residents’ attention and make sure your message remains memorable. The City of Memphis, TN created a brilliant and witty campaign comparing wearing a mask to wearing underwear – “not always required, but definitely encouraged”.  In Aurora, IL the city created Aurora Pride face masks just in time for the local pride festival.

Discover our COVID-19 and Reopening Solutions to learn how 150+ local authorities are using Zencity as part of their COVID-19 response tool-kit and in order to prioritize resources, shape policies, track performance and better connect with their communities.

How Cities and Counties are Working to Help At-Risk Communities During COVID-19

Carmel Blanca

Carmel Blanca

At-risk communities are not only those who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus, often due to limited access to healthcare, mobility and reduced hygiene, but these people are also most vulnerable to the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. Think about the social problems in the U.S. before COVID-19: half a million people experiencing homelessness, 92% of U.S. seniors have at least one chronic health condition, and 40% of households have less than $400 in emergency savings. Each one of these becomes an exacerbated challenge when responding to the virus and some of these problems worsen even more by the economic impact of the pandemic.

Gladly, at-risk communities are not missing from the focus of many local government leaders and communities across the U.S., who are offering additional support to those more vulnerable. By the power of the Zencity Network we see inspiring work led by cities and counties who are actively helping at-risk communities to prepare for and protect against the coronavirus outbreak and its implications. Here are some examples:

Senior Citizens

Image Source: cityoflaurel.org

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus can infect people of all ages, with older people, especially those over 60 or with underlying conditions, at higher risk. But it is not just the heightened risk of infection that is affecting the elderly. Mandatory social distancing creates new challenges for a population that is already struggling with restricted mobility, financial insecurity and loneliness. Local governments understand that they  must protect our senior citizens, now more than ever.

A simple measure cities can take in assisting homebound senior citizens is delivering groceries and meals as Santa Clara, CA, Jackson, MI, West Sacramento, CA and San Antonio, TX are doing. The city of Miami, FL is also offering free in-home COVID-19 testing to minimise seniors’ exposure to risk. Another great example are cities who are joining forces with retailers to create a safer shopping space for senior residents by reserving time earlier in the day for them to shop (See the great work of Mission Viejo, CA, Portland, ME, Pompano Beach, FL and Corona, CA). Not only is this limiting the risk of their exposure to others, but early hours are providing seniors with restocked shelves for a better chance to find what they need. Last, we must remember that in a time of social distancing, seniors are more likely to be isolated. San Antonio, TX is encouraging the local community to join socialisation and friendship programs for its elderly residents and the city of Laurel, MD has created a ‘Chat with a Senior Citizen Program’ to help seniors battling with loneliness during the pandemic.

People Experiencing Homelessness

Image Source: wired.com

Keeping it simple – staying home as a safety measure during the coronavirus outbreak is not an option for people experiencing homelessness. The first problem is that they have limited access to information about the virus or ways to maintain hygiene. Cities such as Miami, FL, Evanston, IL and San Antonio, TX are tackling this problem by distributing informational flyers, hand sanitisers and placing hand washing stations in areas where local homeless persons congregate.

The CDC has recommended aiding the homeless with COVID-19 by offering them isolation housing, and many cities are working tirelessly to do so, including Detroit, MI, the City of Encinitas, CA, and Edmonton, CA. When shelters are not available, local governments can make the most of hotels which are mostly empty, now that tourism has significantly dropped. Seattle, WA officials are funding emergency hotel rooms, as are West Sacramento, CA and the County of Riverside, CA. After the virus forced multiple shelters in the city of Las Vegas, NV to close, the city turned a parking lot into a “homeless shelter” with social distancing markers. Toronto, CA is also offering transportation to isolation and assessments centers. 

Low Income Families and Individuals

Image Source: capradio

Necessary measures which were taken to combat the virus have expanded the number of people dealing with financial uncertainty, with businesses reducing working hours or closing completely. The challenge of facing the COVID-19 pandemic in low income communities is one to be addressed quickly and comprehensively. How can you regularly wash your hands if you don’t have access to running water? How can you maintain social distancing when many people are living in a shared, small space?

Detroit, MI is making sure all their residents have access to running water by announcing a restart plan for locals who need their water turned on. Other cities, such as San Antonio, TX and Mesa, AZ are suspending disconnections of water or electricity. Another great way cities are helping local residents who are financially affected by the pandemic is by placing a moratorium on all evictions. West Sacramento, CA, Bexar County, TX and Beaverton, OR are just some of the cities to do so. Local government leaders are diligently working to aid residents in discovering and understanding the funds and support programs at their disposal. A great example is the city of Doral, FL who has published a letter from Mayor Bermudez summarising relevant points about the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act”.

Children

Image Source: The Guardian

The coronavirus outbreak has caused an abrupt disruption in the daily lives of almost every child across the U.S. With most schools and places of public gathering closed, parents are trying to keep children occupied, feeling safe, and attempting to keep up with schoolwork. Local governments can assist children and their parents in creating a stable routine and aid with food, educational initiatives and other recreational activities while complying with social distancing guidelines.

Many cities across the country are collaborating with their school districts to continue to provide meals to school aged children by delivery or pickup. Some great cities leading initiatives to feed local children are Bettendorf, IO, Santa Clara, CA, Pompano Beach, FL, Corona, CA, San Antonio, TX and Jackson, MI. To help children in the community continue to develop their skills, Sugar Land, TX are informing residents on different resources available for at-home learning. Some local government departments are finding creative ways to entertain local kids and spread some joy. The Norwood Recreation Department and Suisun City Fire Department both held an “Easter Egg Delivery”. The Easter Bunny hopped between local houses for several days, bringing smiles and sweet surprises to local young residents.

Immigrants and Refugees

Image Source: UNHCR

Even without the threat of a growing pandemic, immigrants and refugees face many challenges in their day to day life, and normally do so without the support of the family and community of their homelands. The most basic challenge for many is simply a language barrier, but in the time of COVID-19 this could be a critical one. Access to information and an understanding of the disease and its symptoms is significantly limited when you don’t speak or read English. Many immigrants and refugees are not aware of their own rights or of different resources that are available for them if needed. The simple act of making sure all information about covid-19 and available support is available in multiple languages, can already make a difference. A great example is set by the city of Seattle, WA, the LA County Office of Immigrant Affairs and the City of Boston, MA who have all made sure that information regarding COVID-19 resources is available in languages such as Spanish, Amharic, Tigrinya, Vietnamese and Mandarin. 

We also see many local communities and organisations coming together to inform immigrants and refugees on resources and assistance during the COVID-19 crisis (this includes communities in Illinois, Indiana, Atlanta, GA, New York City, Texas and more). Currently, we see that financial assistance is mainly offered by non-government funds such as the COVID-19 Relief Fund for Washington Undocumented Folks or the Oakland Undocumented Relief Fund

Victims and Survivors of Domestic Violence

Image Source: TIME

Movement restrictions and stay-at-home orders aimed to stop the spread of the coronavirus also bear a risk of increasing domestic violence and child abuse. Domestic violence usually rises whenever families spend more time together and could also be affected by stress and social isolation. Indeed, since the COVID-19 outbreak, with more and more families worldwide in lockdown, there has been a rise in abuse reports to support lines. Quick to act against this worrying effect, we see many local governments, organizations and communities offering essential services and support to help those who are exposed to domestic violence. The World Health Organization has released a report discussing what can be done to address violence against women during COVID-19.

In the city of Ottawa, CA there is a text and chat service that provides support for those experiencing violence and abuse at home. Local government leaders and state officials can use their voice to raise awareness within their communities. Illinois State Senator, Laura Fine, has given a great example by sharing coloring sheets for Child Abuse Prevention Month on her social media account. Buffalo Grove’s very own chief of police, who is also president of the International Association of Chief of Police, addressed concerns of rising domestic violence in an interview with ABC news. Cities and organizations can utilize their official social media channels to share information on available resources, as is the Waubonsee Community College in Illinois.

Looking Forward

These great acts of kindness and solidarity show us that local governments, communities, residents and non-profits are collaborating all across the US to assist those who are more vulnerable to the pandemic and its financial and social impact. Local governments have the ability and opportunity to lead these collaborations and mitigate the burden that the COVID-19 outbreak has on at-risk communities. We will continue to share more inspiring stories and initiatives by local government leaders that are working tirelessly to support their local residents, businesses and first responders while adapting to the new normal.

You can learn more about how Zencity’s technology is helping over 130 cities and counties across the U.S. to face the COVID-19 outbreak and champion their communities through this crisis in our Coronavirus Action Plan.