More Americans Embrace Mask Use, Distancing as U.S. Cases Continue Rising

More Americans Embrace Mask Use, Distancing as U.S. Cases Continue Rising

By Saleel Huprikar, Tim Ludolph, Theo Reuter | Data Science Intern, Data Product Manager, Geospatial Data Scientist

While many countries have successfully “flattened the curve” in the fight against COVID-19, allowing them to slowly reopen businesses and resume limited tourism, the situation in America is far worse. The number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has continued to skyrocket, setting single-day records multiple times in the past few weeks, including back-to-back days with over 70,000 cases and a current one day high of 77,000 cases set last Thursday. This has caused several places to roll back their easing of stay-at-home mandates, from entire states like California and Texas to major metropolitan areas like Miami and Chicago.  

In the midst of this, two recommended preventive measures—the use of face masks and social distancing—have become polarizing. To some, they’re as innocuous as seatbelts, helmets and condoms—simple recommendations that keep yourself and others safe. To others, it’s an infringement on personal rights and an overstep of oversight. Georgia’s governor has sued Atlanta’s mayor for requiring face masks be worn, while Oklahoma’s governor has said that he still doesn’t support their use, despite testing positive for the virus shortly after attending the President’s recent Tulsa rally without one. In some places, people are even getting into physical altercations over whether individuals are wearing them or not.

Premise wanted to see whether its network of Contributors reflected similar volatility around these issues or had changed their feelings and behavior towards them in recent months. Premise has been collecting data on a wide range of COVID-related topics since the pandemic’s outset, from its numerous economic and social impacts (business closures, availability of goods, changes in employment and travel) to behavioral issues like whether Contributors have been wearing masks and social distancing. We have written about the latter two topics several times before, most recently this past May, so we felt that another look was warranted in light of rising tensions and confirmed cases. What we found was an interesting mix—several aspects showed ongoing progress, particularly since the early months of the pandemic, yet the persistence of problematic behavior in certain areas (i.e. those never using masks or social distancing or not enough people always doing so) seems to be having an outsized impact in the areas around them.

Covering Up

To start with the good news, since we last wrote in May, it appears the overall percentage of Contributors saying they “sometimes” or “always” wear a mask has increased nearly 7%, bringing the overall average total to nearly 85%. Furthermore, the percentage of respondents saying they “always” wear a mask has increased as well—nearly 18%!—replacing “sometimes” as the most frequently chosen response. 

This is a tremendous amount of progress considering when we started collecting data on this topic back in March there were zero states where a majority of Contributors said anyone in their household “had purchased a mask as a precautionary measure.” We started to see some states where purchasing them was the majority response the following month, as you can see in the side-by-side representation below (primarily early outbreak states on the West Coast), but their use as a preventive measure was still extremely limited at the time. 

In the graphic above, March responses are on the left, April on the right, with yellow indicating a majority of affirmative answers.

That progress accelerated in the following months, though, bringing us to today where our data shows that since June 1 the number of states where at least 80% of Contributors said they were wearing masks “sometimes” or “always” has risen to 27, including the District of Columbia. (Up from 20 when we wrote in May.) Additionally, the number of states where less than 60% said they were doing so has remained only four—Iowa, Kansas, Montana and South Dakota. (Same number of states as of May.) 

Unfortunately, when you look at locations where a low percentage of Contributors say they “always” wear masks and overlay that with current “hotspots,” as in the graphic below, you see a troubling correlation. Despite the fact that the percentage of people “never” wearing masks remains a low (and decreasing) percentage (roughly 15% on average), looking at responses collected the past month it seems people are still not wearing masks as often as they should be when they go outside their homes. 

The dark purple represents areas with a high number of COVID-19 cases based on daily confirmed case data from Johns Hopkins; these areas are then overlaid with red areas showing the lowest percentages of Contributors “always” wearing a mask (0-20%), based on Contributor data from June to July.

Looking at this graphic, there are some areas of hope—high confirmed daily cases (purple zones) contrasted with a high percentage of Contributors “always” using masks (green zones)—areas of southern California and around cities like Chicago, Miami and New York, for example. This could mean that despite the currently spiking case counts, the aggressive use of masks by residents of these areas could shorten the outbreak’s longevity and begin “flattening the curve” sooner. Conversely, the large number of red zones (areas where 0-20% of Contributors say they “always” use masks) that coincide with zones of high confirmed case counts—numerous counties in Florida, for example, among dozens of smaller pockets across the country—means their ordeal could be prolonged and the outbreak could continue to get worse. 

Staying Away

This pattern of positive overall numbers and small, but disproportionately powerful negative ones holds when you look at the percentage of respondents saying they “adamantly” practice social distancing when they leave the house. This percentage has remained relatively consistent since May, with over 50% of our Contributors on average saying they “adamantly” do and over 30% on average saying they “try as much as possible.” Additionally, the percentage of Contributors who responded they never engage in social distancing has remained under 5% on average in that same time span. 

However, those positive behaviors appear to be subverted by those who are not distancing with the same level of intensity. When you look at the pockets with the lowest percentages of Contributors “adamantly” social distancing (red zones, equal to 0-20%) and again compare them to the areas with the high confirmed case totals (dark purple areas), you see a similar pattern to the above case about masks.

Areas in southern California and around major cities like Chicago, Miami and New York again give some cause for hope as high numbers of Contributors state they “adamantly” social distance there (green zones), which could help them combat the growing number of confirmed cases. However, the high number of areas with a low percentage of Contributors who are social distancing that also have a high (or escalating) case count is discouraging. Furthermore, places like Oregon, northern California, Nevada and Utah that are not yet dealing with full-blown outbreaks (lighter shades on the map) could encounter trouble soon due to the insufficient use of these preventive measures based on our Contributor data.

Accentuate the Positive

So, what does this mean for our state and local leaders trying to combat the disease? Looking at this data, the overall trends seem positive—more and more people are wearing facemasks and social distancing when they leave the house. As you can see in the below graph, the percentage of Contributors who “always” wear a mask and “adamantly” social distance has jumped nearly 10% since late April.

Unfortunately, that positive trend appears to be insufficient, particularly in areas where people do not wear masks or distance with the same intensity. Even though a low percentage of Contributors reported “never” wearing masks or distancing, not enough of them “always” did—which appears particularly damaging in areas where the lowest percentages reported doing so (our red zones). Based on our analysis, if concerted efforts were made to get more residents to “always” use facemasks and distance in those areas—even just to go from the lowest rung (0-20%) to the next highest level (20-40%)—it could have a strong positive impact and ease the burden from their growing caseload. Or to convince a portion of those that “never” do to start doing so some of the time. Maybe with decisive action on either (or both) of these issues, we can improve our chances of stemming the virus’ spread and joining the rest of the world in reopening our businesses and resuming normal life. 

Premise will continue collecting on these (and other) COVID-related topics and plans to check back in several weeks to see how the highlighted areas have been impacted. Keep checking our website for ongoing updates and insights into the impact of the virus.

About Saleel Huprikar, Tim Ludolph, Theo Reuter

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.

Theo Reuter is a Geospatial Data Scientist who is passionate about data and how it can be used to tell stories. Recently graduated from the University of Maryland College Park with an MS in GIS, he has been hard at work at Premise since January 2020 providing mapping, scripting and spatial data analysis, leveraging the spatial nature of the data Premise collects.