Polls consistently show that most Americans wear face masks when they’re in public. That has been true since slightly before mask mandates were widely adopted as the U.S. coronavirus outbreak worsened.
Meanwhile, I see complaints every day that fellow Iowans aren’t following the public health recommendations — on social media, in the news, in the letters-to-the-editor inbox, in public emails to my City Council. Some Iowans who swear they have been isolating also somehow have robust observational accounts of everyone else ignoring the rules.
Even in Iowa, which has a weak mask requirement, 84 percent of people wear masks most or all of the time in public, according to Facebook survey data gathered by Carnegie Mellon University. That’s just a few points lower than neighboring Illinois, which has a real mask mandate. Reported mask usage is nearly 100 percent in my home of Johnson County, which has a local mask mandate.
In June, when virus activity was much lower than it is now, about 65 percent of Americans said they wore masks all or most of the time in businesses, but only 44 percent of Americans said others in their community wear masks most or all of the time, according to the Pew Research Center.
So, people say they wear masks, but they also say other people don’t. Something doesn’t add up.
Of course, people might be lying to pollsters or misremembering their habits. But it’s clear from survey data there is no mass movement of Americans proudly and flagrantly skirting mask policies, contrary to what you might be hearing from informants on Facebook and Twitter.
Long gone are the “in it together” days of the early pandemic, when we channeled Mr. Rogers and implored each other to “look for the helpers.” Instead, we’re primed to look for the scofflaws as part of a decentralized community surveillance project. If that’s who you’re looking for, that’s who you’ll find.
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Government entities in some cases are actively encouraging members of the public to report each other to the authorities. The Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals has a webpage to report violations at restaurants. The University of Iowa set up a similar form earlier this year that drew hundreds of complaints.
People seem eager to believe the worst about their neighbors. Even journalists, who should know better, are partaking.
Remember COVID parties from this past summer? Major news organizations reported that college students were getting together with the explicit intent of passing around the coronavirus. Young people even took “snot shots” and placed bets on who would get sick first, according to a series of disturbing and widely shared stories.
Held up to closer scrutiny, however, there’s little evidence that COVID parties were ever actually a thing. Journalists at Wired and the Verge detailed the inconsistencies, but it’s still easy to find stories about the fabled parties from ostensibly reputable sources.
“These tales also reinforce existing stereotypes — anti-vaxxer hippies in rural Washington, MAGA bros in the Deep South — and may scratch a psychic itch among readers who already tend to pin responsibility for the ongoing pandemic on other people’s bad choices,” Gilad Edelman wrote for Wired.
With the stakes incalculably high, maybe it’s understandable to err on the side of alarmism and focus our limited attention on the public health slackers. In that, though, we risk creating a false impression that most Iowans are not taking the pandemic seriously, which could encourage others to ease up on their precautions.
The truth is that most Iowans are wearing masks and limiting their interactions outside their homes. If you’re not already doing that, I implore you to join the majority of us who are.
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