A Majority of Adults Still Support Masking in Public to Prevent COVID Surges

A new national survey has found that the daily lives of a majority of adults in the U.S. have not fully returned the pre-pandemic “normal,” and large majorities of people of color and lower-income adults — who are more likely to work frontline jobs — say everyone should remain diligent about COVID precautions such as masking in public.

Despite the lifting of COVID restrictions across the country and media hype about “pandemic fatigue,” six in ten U.S. adults agree that people should continue wearing masks in some public places to avoid future surges of infections, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. A slim majority said they continue to wear protective masks in indoor public places all or most of the time, while 19 percent said they never mask in public, including 37 percent of Republicans and, alarmingly, 44 percent of unvaccinated adults.

The survey found sharp divisions on pandemic precautions, falling along class, partisan and racial lines, as well as between the vaccinated and unvaccinated populations. People of color, people suffering from chronic medical conditions, and lower-income adults are much more likely to support continued pandemic precautions, while nearly seven in ten Republicans and 67 percent of unvaccinated adults say people should stop masking in public so life can “get back to normal.”

The survey comes as the initial Omicron surge fades, leaving a daily average of roughly 27,000 new cases nationally. The number of cases reported by public health officials and the media are likely an undercount because more people are using at-home COVID tests, resulting in less available data.

While infection rates have fallen sharply since peaking January, more than a dozen states have seen an increase in cases over the past two weeks, including in the heavily populated Northeast. Cases in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts are up by more than 30 percent, according to the New York Times COVID tracker. Public health experts remain concerned about future surges fueled by BA.2 and other Omicron variants, which pose an acute risk to the unvaccinated, especially if they were not infected recently.

The survey also highlights the uneven burdens of the pandemic. Large majorities of Black and Latinx respondents (88 percent and 69 percent, respectively) said that people should continue masking in some public places to prevent future surges. Researchers said this may be because more people of color work in service industries than white people. Notably, 68 percent of respondents making less than $40,000 per year said everyone should continue masking in public places. Lower-income people were also more likely to say that the pandemic has had negative impacts on employment and finances.

“Masking works best in all situations if the masking is universal,” said Abdullah Shihipar, a narrative projects director at the People, Place & Health Collective at the Brown University School of Public Health, in a statement on Monday.

Nearly 60 percent of adults say they have not fully returned to activities they did before the pandemic, with 42 percent reporting that they have returned to some but not all activities, and 17 percent reporting that they engage in few pre-pandemic activities. These numbers are even higher among Democrats, who overwhelmingly support continued masking in public.

However, majorities of Republicans (55 percent), unvaccinated adults (57 percent) and nearly half of all white adults say they never changed their activities due to COVID or have basically returned to “normal.”

In comparison, only 25 percent of Black respondents said they never changed their activities due to the pandemic or their lives have returned to “normal.” More than 80 percent of Black adults say they are masking in public all or most of the time. Among adults with chronic health conditions, 65 percent said they are still avoiding at least some activities due to COVID.

Proponents argue that lifting masking requirements poses a deadly threat to frontline workers and people facing health risks.

The federal masking requirement for public transportation — including airplanes — is set to expire on April 18. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents said the requirement should be allowed to expire, while 49 percent say the requirement should be extended, a reflection of the current deep divisions over whether masking should be a personal choice.

In an open letter to President Joe Biden last month, CEOs for major airlines and a lobbying group argued that the federal government should allow mask requirements for airplanes to sunset. The letter sparked a debate among public health experts and masking proponents, with some experts suggesting that making requirements could be lifted for vaccinated travelers, and airlines could designate a special section of the airplane for people who want extra protection and prefer to sit with others wearing masks.

Shihipar said airlines are unlikely to separate passengers based on masks, and if the transportation requirement is allowed to expire, airplane travel would likely reflect the situation on the ground, with the decision to mask left up to individuals.

“A masking section [on planes] makes little sense; the air is shared and there would be people without masks in [close] proximity to people with masks,” Shihipar said. “It also has the potential to open up those who are masking to harassment” by anti-maskers who see them separated from other passengers.

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