Data: As States Reopen, Local Businesses Grapple with Mask Dilemma

Data: As States Reopen, Local Businesses Grapple with Mask Dilemma
  • The majority of consumers clearly support strict masking enforcement and prefer businesses that do this. Women and older consumers are most supportive.
  • A meaningful anti-mask minority creates a dilemma for local businesses. The attitudes of this group remain largely unchanged since last year.
  • National reporting tends to focus on anti-masking attitudes, creating the impression that they're more widespread than they actually are.

Texas 'Freedom' vs. Local Business Responsibility

Several weeks ago Texas was in the news when the governor removed the mask mandate and left the decision of whether customers should wear masks to individual businesses. A number of articles hit the press, detailing the impact this was having on businesses.

The Washington Post reported that a local Mexican restaurant decided to keep its mask rule and received threats that visitors would call ICE. Meanwhile, the Culture Map Austin, reported popular grocery chain H-E-B decided to not to require customer masks, but quickly reversed course after a public outcry.

Texas, purportedly a pro business state, shifted masking enforcement and liability risk to the individual business level. Which story are we to believe: are consumers for or against businesses imposing stricter masking rules? These stories raise the question of how should a business navigate this once again treacherous public-health terrain?

On the one hand, The Washington Post paints a picture of unjustified attacks against the restaurant for requiring masks. Meanwhile, a small regional news outlet reported on a Texas grocery chain with 340 locations as having first relaxed consumer masking but then reversing itself after broad public demands for continued masking enforcement.

Masking: What Does the Public Really Want?

This all begs the question: What is the reality of the public attitude towards businesses that establish strict masking guidelines? In an effort to answer that question, we have been regularly surveying consumers over the past nine months. In particular, two recent surveys focused on consumer attitudes toward businesses and mask requirements.  

Using Google surveys we conducted two surveys during the second week of March, asking consumers if a business strictly enforces mask-wearing (for employees and customers) would they be more or less likely to transact with that business.  

If a business strictly enforces mask wearing for employees & customers are you more or less likely to do business with them?

The first of the surveys provided two choices (more or less likely) and an open ended "other" option. It was a follow up to a survey done last July (n=500). But to extract more nuance, particularly from those opposed to supporting a business that enforced masking, we created another survey (n=2,500). It offered four possible responses:

  • More likely to do business with them
  • Neutral, will not affect my spending
  • Less likely to do business with them
  • I will never shop there again

If a business strictly enforces mask wearing for employees & customers are you more or less likely to do business with them?

Both recent surveys, and all the previous ones, consistently showed a significant majority of consumers were in favor of businesses strictly enforcing masking for both employees and consumers. The current surveys also indicated that a not insignificant 16% - 21% of the US public objected to strict mask enforcement.

Demographic Differences

The second, larger survey allows us to explore a range of demographic details in these results. This survey breaks down very neatly along gender lines with women more likely to support masking; more men are likely to "never shop there again."

In many cases behavior is at odds with stated attitudes. I have also been willing to compromise in the case of my local auto repair shop owner and workers while I have held local restaurants and their workers to the higher standard of rigorous masking. This is likely the reality with all respondents. Yet these survey findings do provide a broad understanding of how people think that they will behave.

Results by gender

Not surprisingly those over 65 years old came down on the side of being more likely to support a strict masking policy, with 66% in favor. Only 3% said they would never shop there again and 7% overall expressed a negative attitude towards strict enforcement. Other age cohorts were roughly the same: 54% in favor of strict enforcement with the negative responses running just under 20%.

Results by age group

The hardcore “never shop there again” attitude largely declined linearly with age, with the exception of younger respondents, peaking in the 24-34 cohort. I can imagine a number of reasons for this peak, not the least of which is financial insecurity. But it certainly bears further study to ferret out the causes behind this finding.

Tracking regional differences

We have seen consistent regional differences in the survey responses. To highlight regional differences, we combined the negative "less likely" and "never" shop there again values.

The more urban Northeast, hit hard early by the pandemic, was the most in support of masking and the least likely to shop less or not at all due to strict masking policies. At the other end of the scale was the more rural Midwest, which had the highest negative attitudes. Yet nearly 54% in the Midwest still favored a stricter business masking policy.

Regional differences

How Attitudes Have Changed Over Time

Have consumers become more or less supportive of masking requirements? Have the death toll and hardships from Covid changed consumer thinking around masking standards when they shop?

I first addressed these consumer questions last year in early summer at GatherUp. The issues brought up were and continue to be critical to managing reputation during the shifting tides of the covid pandemic. Reviews were coming in at an increasing rate critical of masking policy one way or the other.

We have seen a small shift in the survey data towards favoring stricter masking with an increase of 2% saying they are now more likely to do business with an establishment with stricter masking guidelines. The bulk of that change came from those that were previously "indifferent," while the attitudes of those less likely to support a masking policy have changed very little.

If a business strictly enforces mask wearing for employees and customers are you more or less likely to do business with them?

Comparison of survey data July 2020 with March 2021

We created an additional survey that, as noted above, attempted to gain a better understand of the strength of the negative convictions. The "neutral," "less likely" and "never" categories were all lower in the most recent survey than last year. Again, you can see that the topline change increasing the “more likely” category largely came from the “neutral” and “less” likely categories with a much smaller amount moving away from the “never” group.

If a business strictly enforces mask wearing for employees and customers are you more or less likely to do business with them?

Comparison of survey data July 2020 with March 2021

In mid-2020 the Northeast was most favorable towards a strict masking policy while the midwest was the least favorable. As the midwest had been spared the ravages the East had seen in March and April of 2020, I theorized that, as more and more folks directly experienced Covid's impact, consumers would shift towards support of stricter masking.

We conducted multiple surveys since last July in an effort to identify possible trends and changing attitudes. While my hypothesis was not wrong, we did not see as much attitudinal shift as I anticipated (or perhaps hoped for). In the "I will never shop there again" category there is only a modest trend away from this position.

Attitudinal changes over time (July '20 - March '21)


Over the past eight months there has been some change in negative attitudes toward masking support. However, what has become clear in my surveys is that the attitudes expressed last July have not really shifted much.

What It All Means

  • There is broad public support for masking.
  • But that doesn’t mean complete support; businesses must therefore embrace rules that will leave some of their customers unhappy.
  • This dilemma is accentuated in states like Texas, which ended mask mandates early, forcing businesses to take a position leading to potential customer conflict.
  • The not-so-silent anti-mask minority, while declining slightly, was largely solidified in its attitudes last summer. Those positions have not really changed.
  • National reporting tends to focus on anti-masking attitudes, creating the potential impression they're more widespread than they actually are.

The Washington Post reported on the Mexican restaurant threats and the fact that H-E-B workers felt less safe without the mask mandate. However the Post failed to report on the fact that H-E-B subsequently changed its policy, due to consumer outcry, to again require masks. The reasons for that lack of reporting of the postive story to require masks are not entirely clear as the regional press did cover the change back to masking extensively.

Update 3/24: Subsequent to my anecdotal observation about the limits of national reporting vis a vis masking, the NY Times has written up some recent research into the relative amount of positive and negative international, national and regional covid coverage. The article notes that national coverage, regardless of political point of view, in the United States has been more negative than either regional or international coverage.

Though often presented as a choice, there is no real equivalency between not enforcing and enforcing masking. Businesses have a legal, moral and ethical obligation to protect customers and employees. Obviously, that puts them between a rock and a hard place in some cases. But recent policy shifts in states like Texas have compelled businesses to step up and take responsibility – and an often challenging social stand.