Mask Mandates Are Just Fine

August 23, 2021

Here’s a statement of fact that might surprise many people: mask mandates just aren’t very controversial.

But, how can that be? You may wonder. After all, the media has been full of stories of red-faced, screaming anti-mask protesters having meltdowns in school board meetings. Clips of angry “parents” – sometimes revealed to not really be parents at all – go viral on social media, often boosted by accounts you’ve never seen before. A lot of people just seem really mad about masks.

This is certainly the impression most people have. But there’s just one problem: it doesn’t actually reflect reality. The evidence is in, and it’s unambiguous: the anti-maskers have lost the debate. While the media sensationalizes dramatic (and sometimes staged) confrontations over the issue, most people have made up their minds that masks are a good idea.

People Support Masks

The large majority of Americans support mask mandates. These folks – quiet, boring normals like us – do not stage screaming protests in support of mask mandates during a global pandemic, and generate no viral social media videos. But a steadily accumulating pile of polling data clearly shows that most people think mask mandates are the right call, particularly with a new hyper-contagious variant floating around:

  • Morning Consult/POLITICO showed overwhelming (>60%) support for local mask mandates for indoor settings like offices, gyms and entertainment venues. (Taken August 7-9th)
  • Hill/HarrisX showed 3-to-1 (75%) support for local mask mandates if there were a spike COVID in the respondent’s own area. (Taken July 16-17th)
  • Kaiser Family Foundation showed approximately 2-to-1 (63% / 36%) support for mask mandates in schools for unvaccinated students and staff. (Taken July 15-August 2nd)
  • Gallup showed a nearly 2-to-1 margin of support for mandating masks for unvaccinated students and school staff. (Taken July 19-26th)
  • Axios-Ipsos showed 69% support for mandatory masking in schools. (Taken August 13-16th)

Even those with little faith in polling will concede that the evidence here is compelling. The public’s mind is mostly made up on this: they’re okay with mask mandates, given the circumstances. What we see in all of this polling data and more is that people have gotten the message: masks work, and they’re an important part of slowing the spread of COVID. 

By the way – if you haven’t received one yet, please consider getting vaccinated. COVID-19 vaccines are safe and free, and the single best way to avoid getting yourself or others sick.

The other thing we see is a consistently small, rump minority that opposes masks and seems to be in denial about COVID itself. They number a bit less than a third of respondents, and their demographics are almost uniformly white.

Vaccine Mandates Are Still A “Maybe”

When it comes to COVID vaccine mandates, the evidence is a bit more mixed.

Both Gallup and Morning Consult report clear majority support (~60%) overall for COVID vaccine mandates, both in indoor settings generally and in schools. Axios-Ipsos also found 55% support for employer vaccine requirements. This tracks generally with Carolina Forward’s own findings here in North Carolina, where we found net +25 support for making the COVID vaccine mandatory in schools once FDA approved – which now seems imminent.

But Kaiser found more mixed results. In their polling, they found a slight majority of parents (not people overall) opposed to school vaccine mandates, even after FDA approval. That opposition was driven primarily by Republicans, but also by a minority of Black and Hispanic respondents, who report substantially more hesitancy about the medical establishment than whites do.

We expect to see significant movement in the vaccine mandate polling numbers as COVID vaccines get full FDA approval later this year, and more people get comfortable with vaccine safety overall.

So Why Are We Hearing So Much About This?

One reason why anti-mask protests have become so ubiquitous in the media and on social networks is simply because they’re dramatic. Screaming people disrupting things draws media attention (especially when they’re white) – this is a lesson everyone knows already. But that’s also not the whole story. There is, in fact, a concerted effort underway in the far-right movement to sow chaos at the local level by targeting school boards.

Sound far-out? Well, we’ve actually seen this before. Only a decade ago, a far-right group funded by the Koch brothers called “Americans For Prosperity” waded into Wake County’s school board election in an attempt to stop desegregation efforts. “AFP” recruited manpower and support to 4 school board candidates, and its national director, Art Pope – also the underwriter of the Art Pope-John Locke Foundation – donated tens of thousands of dollars to their campaigns.

This time, the radical right is attempting to use mask mandates, as well as invented boogeymen like “political indoctrination” in schools and “critical race theory,” to identify, cultivate and install right-wing activists in local school boards. We know this because they’re quite open about it, and we see their fingerprints in our own communities. Organizations like FreedomWorks, ALEC, Americans for Prosperity and NC’s own Art Pope-John Locke Foundation share deep ties and overlapping connections that facilitate close coordination on these projects. While none of these organizations have much popular constituency, they do enjoy blank-check support from highly engaged billionaires. You can buy a lot of exposure with enough money.

What This Looks Like in Real Life

Take, for example, the recent Buncombe County school board meeting that went totally off the rails. If you haven’t seen the story, a bunch of crazies basically stormed a local school board meeting and shouted and heckled the board until they were forced to adjourn early. The mob then took the stage, proclaimed themselves a sort of school board junta, and then “abolished” mask rules. Videos of the whole disgraceful spectacle went viral.

In a remarkable coincidence, Republican Congressman Madison Cawthorn – who neither lives in Buncombe nor has children – chose that same night to make an appearance at the meeting. He delivered prepared remarks filled with his usual buzzword-filled schlock (which later earned him an appearance on John Oliver’s show). Later, it was revealed that the ringleader of the crazies’ group doesn’t actually have kids in the county school system – nor even lives in Buncombe county.

Did they succeed in overturning Buncombe county’s school mask mandate? Of course not. But that was never really the goal. Instead, they won free media coverage and social media impressions, broadcasting their message to tens or hundreds of thousands of other potential sympathizers. They also delivered a popular impression that mask mandates are some hotly contested turf, instead of the broad consensus issue that they really are.

We know now that the Tea Party “movement” was really an astroturf campaign by the right-wing billionaires’ club. Nevertheless, it was reasonably successful in having a political impact. The very same people – literally – are doing exactly the same thing today. Don’t let them fool you.

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