Are Americans Wearing Face Masks?

Are Americans Wearing Face Masks?

By Saleel Huprikar and Tim Ludolph | Data Science Intern and Data Product Manager

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact the globe, with the United States recently passing two unfortunate milestones—over 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past ten weeks and over 100,000 have died from the virus overall. In the midst of this, Premise has continued to collect data on the issue, tasking its contributors worldwide to report on the virus and how it continues to impact their lives. As states across the U.S. begin lifting stay-at-home orders, one question of particular interest is whether people are abiding by recommendations to take preventative measures such as wearing a face mask when they leave their houses.

As noted in IHME’s preliminary analysis, which reviewed Premise’s sentiment data between May 9 and May 15, at least 80% of Contributors in 18 U.S. states indicated they were wearing masks “sometimes” or “always” when they left the house, while 4 U.S. states (Indiana, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Oklahoma) had no more than 60% of Contributors indicate that they were doing so. In our study, we decided to look at all U.S. data collected thus far in May (approximately 12,500 responses) to determine how many states met the 80% or higher threshold for wearing masks. Based on our analysis, at least 80% of Contributors in 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia indicated that they were wearing masks “sometimes” or “always” when they left the house. In 4 U.S. states—Indiana, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota—less than 60% of Contributors indicated they were doing so.

Looking more closely at respondents for this question, we noted females were over-represented, so we decided to weight the responses based on gender to account for their oversampling. (We obtained 2019 gender ratio data for the United States from the U.S. Census Bureau.) Based on this weighting methodology, we found that nearly 78% of U.S. respondents in May indicated they wear masks outside either “sometimes” or “always” with a margin of error of 0.80% at the 95% confidence level. This provides strong statistical evidence that the majority of Americans are wearing face masks to some extent when they leave their houses.

There are of course regional differences, which are presumably the product of different state policies toward the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, using a weighted methodology similar to above to account for sampling biases (state gender data was again obtained from the U.S. Census Bureau), we compared responses in Illinois and Georgia, two states with different policies during the pandemic. From our data, we saw that 87% of Illinois responses in May indicated they wear masks to some extent outside (“always” or “sometimes”) with a margin of error of 2.20% at the 95% confidence level, while 71% of Georgia responses in May indicated likewise with a margin of error of 3.70% at the 95% confidence level. These findings suggest that Illinois residents are more likely to wear face masks outside than Georgia residents, which might be a result of the fact that Illinois’s restrictions have been more stringent than those of Georgia.

Of particular interest is looking at why 22% of responses in our U.S. sample reported not wearing a mask. Delving into that population reveals some interesting and worrisome insights for authorities. First, nearly 24% of those respondents said they “do not own a mask or know how to make one,” which could indicate ongoing issues purchasing them. What is more troubling are the roughly 30% who said they “do not believe face masks are effective for preventing the spread of COVID-19.” As both the CDC and WHO have said, using face masks—in conjunction with other preventative measures such as hand cleaning and social distancing—can help curb the spread of COVID-19. (Though it is also worth noting that guidance from the CDC and WHO has been unclear—the CDC initially gave guidance against wearing face masks.) This indicates a potential lack of information (or understanding) that could be dangerous, putting additional lives at risk. It might be useful for authorities to consider creating a concerted messaging campaign to inform their citizens of the benefits of these precautions.

On the positive side, of the nearly 5,500 responses for the select-all-that-apply question “what do you plan to continue doing once non-essential businesses reopen,” over 60% said they plan to continue “wearing a face mask in public,” the most popular response in May. (A close second—also with over 60% selection rate—was “maintaining physical distance from others.”) These are positive indicators of the possibility that the trend of new cases may remain flat as states begin to reopen and not result in new spikes of the virus.

Premise will continue to collect data on these (and other) COVID-related themes in the coming weeks. Keep checking our website for ongoing updates and insights into the impact of the virus.


The Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation is an independent population health research center at UW Medicine, part of the University of Washington, that provides rigorous and comparable measurement of the world’s most important health problems and evaluates the strategies used to address them. IHME makes this information freely available so that policymakers have the evidence they need to make informed decisions about how to allocate resources to best improve population health.

About Saleel Huprikar and Tim Ludolph

Saleel Huprikar recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied economics, mathematics and statistics. Saleel is very passionate about the intersection of statistics and social sciences; he recently published a research paper in the Berkeley Economic Review that analyzes how state-level and local-level economic conditions (e.g. cost of living) affect people’s attitudes towards a federal minimum wage increase using a statistical regression framework. At Premise, Saleel has been involved in developing and implementing statistical methodologies in order to help Premise understand the data that it has collected and establish an analytical strategy for future data collection.

Tim Ludolph is Premise’s data product manager, ensuring our collection, analysis and visualization efforts provide insights from our global contributor network that have maximum impact on our customers’ daily operations. He has over fourteen years experience working with numerous U.S. government agencies and is a master’s graduate of American University’s School of International Service.