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Mask Mandates Find Favor in Virginia and Nationwide

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Brittany Keegan
October 25, 2021

As schools and businesses continue to reopen following nearly 18 months of pandemic-related closures, debate continues regarding mask mandates. While some have always been in favor, there are others who are becoming opposed or who have always been opposed.

In order to better understand public perceptions of masks mandates, a recently conducted Wilder School Commonwealth Poll asked participants for their thoughts on the issue in various contexts. The poll was conducted from September 7-15, 2021, with a representative sample of 811 adults living in Virginia. The margin of error was 5.35%.

When asked if they supported an emergency statewide requirement to wear masks in K-12 schools that was issued on August 12 by the Virginia Health Commissioner, the majority (71%) said that they supported the mandate. Democrats in Virginia, at 94%, as well as independents, at 80%, were more likely than Republicans, at 43%, to support the mandate. In addition, minority and/or Hispanic Virginians were more supportive of the mandate than white, non-Hispanic Virginians (83% compared to 64%). Men and women, at 73% each, were equally likely to support the requirement.

Nationwide, mask mandates in K-12 schools vary in popularity. Currently, 17 states plus Washington, DC have such a mandate, while eight state prohibit masks mandates for K-12 schools. The remaining 25 states have neither a mandate nor a prohibition against them. As of August 2021, the majority of parents (58%) were not in favor of mandatory vaccinations for K-12 students, but were in favor (63%) of mask mandates in schools. As was the case in Virginia, Democrats (88%) and independents (66%) nationwide were more likely than Republicans (69%) to favor mandates. In addition, Black (83%) and Hispanic (76%) participants nationwide were more likely than whites (54%) to support a K-12 mask mandate. Another nationwide study found that opposition to mask mandates in schools increases as parent income increases. While 19% of those earning less than $50,000 per year opposed these mandates, 40% of those making more than $100,000 per year were in opposition.

Commonwealth Poll participants were also asked how they would feel about a hypothetical federal mandate that would require masks to be worn indoors. As of September 2021, seven states plus Washington, D.C. have indoor mask mandates for everyone regardless of vaccination status, and three have indoor mask mandates for the unvaccinated only. The remaining states do not have indoor mask mandates for anyone, regardless of vaccination status.

A smaller majority (57%) said that they would be in favor of such a mandate. As was the case with the mandate in K-12 schools, Democrats, at 87% and independents, at 60%, would be more likely than Republicans, at 24%, to favor a federal indoor mask mandate. Minority and/or Hispanic Virginians were also more likely than white, non-Hispanic Virginias to say that they would be in favor of this mandate (62% compared to 51%). Women, at 62%, were slightly more likely than men, at 51%, to say that they would favor a federal indoor mask mandate.

Groups that were in favor of mask mandates in K-12 schools and at the federal level were also more likely to express concern that new COVID-19 variants will lead to a worsening of the pandemic in their communities. Overall, the Commonwealth Poll found that 75% of Virginias shared this concern with Democrats (93%) and independents (68%) being more concerned than Republicans (58%). In addition, 47% of minority and/or Hispanic participants said that they were very concerned that new variants will lead to a worsening pandemic while 35% of white, non-Hispanic participants said that they were very concerned. Men (73%) and women (77%) were about equally concerned.

As winter approaches, some fear that a rise in coronavirus cases combined with flu, RSV and other viruses could put many at risk. Combined with overwhelmed hospitals, policymakers must be vigilant and ready to act in order to protect public health. They also must take care to implement policies that are publicly acceptable, especially as the two-year mark of the pandemic approaches and some are becoming increasingly resistant to additional mandates and requirements. Though vaccination mandates remain contentious, mask mandates are finding more favor in individual states and nationwide. Should the pandemic worsen, implementing such a mandate could be a favorable way to protect public health.­­

Author: Brittany Keegan is the Director of Research Development and Engagement within the Office of Research and Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. She is a qualitative researcher, with research interests focusing on gender-based violence prevention/intervention, immigration policy, nonprofit organizations, and social equity.

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