The latest CDC data tells us that 63.5 percent of American adults have received at least one vaccine dose while 52.8 percent are fully vaccinated. The CDC also told us a month ago that vaccinated people are so unlikely to get sick from infection or to pass the virus to others that there’s no reason they shouldn’t return to normal. That means no more mask-wearing if you’re immunized — in most places. Schools and public transportation are exceptions, but you’re free to return to 2019 mode nearly anywhere else.
So why are so few people doing that when it comes to masks?
Gallup looked at how Americans’ behavior has and hasn’t changed since the feds’ pandemic guidance was relaxed for vaccinated people in May. They found some encouraging signs — the share who are still strictly isolating has shrunk to its lowest point of the pandemic while the share visiting stores and restaurants has grown to its highest level since last March. Mask-wearing is down too … but only a little. Certainly much less than you’d anticipate after the CDC told the majority of American adults who’ve had their shots to take off their masks and enjoy life again.
What’s going on here?
I was surprised this weekend when reading an interview with Scott Gottlieb to find him admitting that, despite being vaccinated, he’s still wearing his mask too:
Are you still wearing a mask?
I’m not wearing a mask outdoors. But I wear a mask in certain indoor settings where there are crowds. And it’s not necessarily because I feel vulnerable. I’m fully vaccinated. I feel like it’s etiquette. When I go into a pharmacy or grocery store, there’s enough people wearing masks, that I feel like by wearing the mask, I make other people feel less uncomfortable. That’s why I’ve been wearing a mask.
I don’t want anyone to be hassled for choosing to wear or not wear a mask at this point of the pandemic, when we’re now each responsible for managing our own risk. But “etiquette” is an odd answer coming from a former FDA chief and well-known public-health expert. If anyone would be expected to model proper behavior in accordance with science, it’s him. And the science says he’s free to unmask.
Maybe people would be more comfortable seeing those around them not wearing masks if they saw Scott Gottlieb declining to wear one now that he’s protected.
Anyway, I posted the Gallup graph above earlier on Twitter and got two types of responses. One: “These insane hypercautious mask obsessives will be wearing a diaper on their face until the end of time.” Two: “What do you expect? Most businesses are still requiring masks on the premises.” That’s a good point, and fair enough. Read the question Gallup posed carefully and you’ll see that it doesn’t ask if people are wearing masks constantly or most of the time. It asks if they’ve worn a mask at any point over the last week. If you’ve had any reason to visit a store or restaurant where masks are mandatory then you’ve had no choice but to mask up even if you’ve otherwise ditched your mask in all other situations. So maybe all this poll tells us is that businesses are still being hard-asses about mask-wearing.
Although, if so, that’s an interesting finding in itself. Many jurisdictions dropped their mask mandates after the CDC declared that vaccinated people didn’t need to take precautions anymore. Why are businesses still insisting on masks then?
Also, if continued mask-wearing is just an artifact of businesses continuing to insist upon them, how do we explain the last row here?
There’s nothing surprising about the fact that hardcore anti-vaxxers are *less* likely to take precautions than the fully vaccinated are. Other polls have demonstrated that too. It seems to be a matter of risk tolerance: Those who are most risk-averse with respect to COVID were most eager to get vaccinated while those most prone to skepticism about the pandemic and the expert consensus were least likely to follow restrictions. But anti-vaxxers shop at the same stores and go to the same restaurants as everyone else. And yet, somehow, they’re wearing masks at a much lower rate than the vaccinated are.
It could be that they’re lying to the pollster, as their antipathy to taking precautions might lead them to minimize how often they’re masking up when asked about it. It could also be that anti-vaxxers are concentrated in areas where the general population is less prone to require masks or social distancing, in which case many of them *aren’t* visiting the same stores and eating at the same restaurants as others. If you’re going out to eat in L.A., you’re much more likely to be asked to mask up by the proprietor than you are if you’re going out to eat in some rural red county somewhere. The numbers above may be disguising a familiar regional disparity, then, in which more liberal jurisdictions have a high rate of precautions and vaccination while more conservative ones have lower rates.
But that can’t explain everything. There’s a 40-point gap(!) between the vaccinated and unvaccinated on wearing masks. It’s not all regional.
My half-baked hot take about this is that trust in the public-health bureaucracy has been sufficiently shaken on all sides by now that people are doing what their gut tells them to do no matter what Fauci and the CDC say. That’s been true of righty populists since the beginning, of course. Fauci’s been pushing masks for a year (after not pushing them initially) and the reaction from MAGA has been “Fauci doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” But skepticism about expert opinion may be rising among Democrats and centrists too. Think back to late March, when Rochelle Walensky told the country she felt a sense of “impending doom” as cases began to inch up again. Cases in the U.S. are down 79.6 percent since then. Look at the headlines over the past week, with the year-long scientific consensus on the virus’s origins now being challenged aggressively. Just in the past few days, Fauci’s newly revealed emails from last year showed him questioning whether store-bought masks will do much of anything to protect people, raising new doubts about their effectiveness.
I think it’s easy for someone who’s risk-averse and vaccinated at this point to look at all that and think, “The scientists are often wrong, even by their own admission. What if they’re wrong about the vaccines too? And if they are, shouldn’t I keep masking?” On the one hand, that’s silly considering how much data we have by now about how well the vaccines are working. (Just look at Israel’s case curve.) On the other hand, with the Indian variant spreading around the world and science still uncertain about how long vaccine immunity might last, it’s hard to fault someone who’s been immunized for deciding that they’ll keep taking a small measure of precaution like wearing a mask when around others. No one wants to be an unwitting casualty of the CDC’s next blunder. So, as trust in experts declines, anti-vaxxers end up masking less and pro-vaxxers just keep on masking. That might explain the gap we see in Gallup.