Mask Mandates Are Going Away, COVID Anxiety Isn't

As official mask mandates lift, our survey shows many consumers are still anxious. That puts a challenging burden on local business owners.

Mask Mandates Are Going Away, COVID Anxiety Isn't
  • Our open-ended survey about post-COVID activities showed 55% of respondents had concerns about returning to old behaviors.
  • Some business categories face more headwinds than others: live concerts, indoor dining, gyms, among a few others.
  • Businesses now must balance relaxed guidance and differing consumer attitudes and anxiety, which argue COVID hygiene practices should be extended.

As the economy lurches back to post-pandemic life, we're starting to see that it will likely be very erratic. Customer fears and concerns and how businesses respond to them will play a huge role in determining winners and losers at both a macro-industry level and individual store level.

To understand post-COVID consumer stress and concerns, we conducted a survey of 500 American adults during the second and third weeks of April. The one-question survey was open-ended and allowed any answer. At the highest level the answers fell into "had concerns" and "no concerns."

Once we reach herd immunity what won't you feel comfortable doing of all the things you did before the pandemic?

Q: Once we reach herd immunity what *won't* you feel comfortable doing of all the things you did before the pandemic? (n=500 US adults)

We then bracketed the individual responses into 23 categories. They weren't surprising and largely followed predictable patterns. Just under half (45%) said that nothing would make them uncomfortable once we reached herd immunity. Men were twice as likely as women to answer that way.

But 45% being willing to resume pre-pandemic activities means that 55% were not ready. Obviously this is shifting ground as more folks get vaccinated and as we move into summer and more outdoor activities.

Crowds and Other Concerns

Among the 23 response groupings, by far the largest was "nothing" (would make them uncomfortable). So, to highlight what folks were actually concerned about, we removed it from the chart below.

Q: Once we reach herd immunity what *won't* you feel comfortable doing of all the things you did before the pandemic? (n=500 US adults)

Here are some observations:

  • Concerts and large indoor events will see headwinds. It will be difficult for them to fully recover in the short term. COVID passports (like in NY state) could provide some help.
  • Restaurants, particularly buffets, may continue to suffer and will need to maintain curbside pickup and delivery while reopening. Juggling all those operational balls will not be an easy task and may sink some marginal operations.
  • Bars and nightlife will also face headwinds. Summer will allow outdoor seating but customer concerns will continue to limit their patronage.
  • Many folks expressed concerns around a range of indoor activities: not wanting to be in an enclosed space with strangers, not wanting to go into the office or the gym. These categories will need to double down on COVID hygiene, as well as coming up with new ways to make clients feel comfortable. Persistent and clear client-focused communication will be required in these situations.
  • Almost 2% of respondents said "everything" would make them uncomfortable.

Differences by Age

Concerns were largely but not completely aligned with age. Interestingly, 25 - 34 year olds and 55 - 64 year olds had more concerns and anxiety than the next, older age cohort in each case.

Anecdotally, my well situated 65+ sister visited two restaurants last week, both with open kitchens. In one the kitchen staff were all masked and wearing gloves. In the other, not so much. Despite similar cordoned sitting arrangements she left one feeling comfort and the other with deep unease.

Percent in each age group with concerns  

(n=500 US adults)


  • Fewer concerns amongst 65+ compared with 55 - 64 might reflect higher vaccination levels among older Americans.
  • The reality for businesses, particularly those that are rely on indoor activities such as fine dining, is that many of the most well-heeled customers will have concerns. Clear safety protocols and rigorous hygiene practices will ease some concerns.

How Will Social Behaviors Change?

An interesting subtext could be found in responses that indicated physical greetings like hugs, kisses and handshakes, as well as sharing food, would continue to concern some people. And a number of people indicated they would be uncomfortable not masking in many different situations.

Courtesy of

Others said they would be uncomfortable going into work sick. Working while sick has long (and erroneously) been considered a badge of courage or dedication. Hopefully with more flexible work at home rules that can change.

Social interactions and old work conventions will, at least temporarily, be awkward as our fears are navigated and interactions negotiated. Some of these modified behavior patterns may also stick around and become new norms.

The Next __ Months Will Continue to Be Weird

The recent CDC mask mandate update – no masks required for the the vaccinated – is unlikely to alleviate consumer concerns in the short term. And it may in fact add to them, particularly in places where vaccination levels are low or cases continue.

Besides reduced sales in some segments due to post-COVID worries, businesses will have to continue to act in the capacity of "enforcers," requiring masks of their employees and customers.  And, as it has in the past, this "enforcer" role will continue to cause strife.

In this Facebook video from May 13th (h/t Aaron Weiche) you can see the conflict up close at a Menard's in Buffalo, MN. And while the employee in this video did an incredible job standing up to a belligerent customer, the company could suffer long term consequences.

End in Sight

The end of the pandemic is in sight. But to get across the finish line businesses will need to manage customers' worries with clear communications and hygiene practices. They will also have to continue to provide and improve multiple ordering and delivery systems – and they will need to double down on enforcing mask requirements, even if some customers resist.

Just because you might now be able to relax standards doesn't mean you should, given some folks' anxieties and the ongoing danger to employees. Deciding who has and who hasn't had their vaccine is the last place you want to be.

The past year has been extremely hard on small business. Despite or maybe because of the new CDC mask guidance, at least for the immediate future, that will continue to be the case.