Monmouth: Americans tiring of mask mandates -- or are they?

AP Photo/Steven Senne

If so, it’s for good reasons, to which we’ll return in a moment. A new Monmouth poll confirms that support for masking mandates continues to fade, and has become more of a partisan touchstone than a consensus issue. “The messaging has not been clear,” the pollster commented, but it goes beyond messaging:

Before the CDC reversed course and announced new masking guidelines last week, the poll found a majority of Americans (52%) at least somewhat support instituting or reinstituting face mask and social distancing guidelines in their state. Another 46% are opposed. The partisan split on this question is huge – 85% of Democrats support bringing back guidelines while 73% of Republicans oppose it. Independents are divided with 42% in support and 55% opposed. …

“I think Americans acknowledge that the CDC and other health agencies have to deal with a lot of uncertainty. Still, it is tough for the average person to understand the flip from masks being optional to being necessary again. The messaging has not been clear,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Currently, 53% of the American public are at least somewhat concerned about a family member becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus. This marks an increase from a pandemic-era low of 42% recorded in last month’s Monmouth poll. However, the current finding remains lower than all prior results, which ranged between 67% and 83%. The number who say they are very concerned about a serious illness in their family now stands at 30%, which is up from 23% in June but still lower than the prior range of 37% (early June 2020) to 60% (January 2021).

Bear in mind that Monmouth conducted this survey before the CDC fully reversed course on masking guidelines. The media drumbeat and the hyperbole from the CDC and NIH could have had an impact since then. And there is at least one reason to question whether this reflects the populace or is more of an outlier:

Nearly three-quarters of voters support reinstating mask mandates in their area if there is a spike in coronavirus cases, a new Hill-HarrisX poll finds.

Seventy-four percent of registered voters in the July 16-17 survey said they support reissuing a mask mandate if their area experiences a rise in cases.

That includes 46 percent who strongly support bringing back mask mandates and 28 percent who somewhat support the idea.

By contrast, 26 percent of respondents said they oppose such a move, including 12 percent who somewhat oppose and 14 percent who strongly oppose.

The Hil/Harris poll shows less of a partisan divide on this questions. In their survey, taken about a week prior to Monmouth’s, 93% of Democrats support new masking mandates, but so do a solid majority of Republicans at 59% (indies split the difference at 71%). In the Monmouth crosstabs, 85% of Democrats support reinstituting masking and social distancing, while only 24% of Republicans support it. Also in Monmouth, independents oppose it 42/55, a very big difference from Harris’ results.

There is one key difference between the two polls. Harris asked their question as a conditional hypothetical, asking whether respondents would support it if cases began to rise. Monmouth asked whether they support reinstituting these mitigation steps in their states at the moment. It’s perhaps a thin distinction, given that cases have been rising for a while now in most places, but it’s a distinction that should be noted — even if the difference hardly seems to cover the wide shift among Republicans and independents.

At this point, though, masking and social distancing would have to be permanent to work, at least according to this data from Monmouth:

This tracks pretty closely with the CDC’s numbers on vaccination uptake as well. Note the number on the “likely never” population, however. Having 17% refuse on top of the 68% who have already vaccinated only leaves 15% of the population left to get their shots. Even if one accepts the idea that we need to mask up to give everyone a chance to protect themselves, how long are we supposed to wait for them to do so? The vaccines are now plentiful and readily available — even to the point of expiring on the shelf.

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake notes yet another poll in which mask mandates generated little enthusiasm, but another kind of mandate did:

It’s also not the only evidence of declining appetite for mask mandates or even re-masking more broadly. A late July poll showed that strongly blue California supported a statewide mask mandate just 49-39. That’s far shy of the overwhelming national support a year ago, as well as the 70 percent support in another California poll back in October. Support for an indoor mask mandate was higher recently in San Diego County, at 60 percent, but again that’s a bluer area of a blue state.

Interestingly, there might actually be as much or more appetite for a more intrusive mandate: vaccination. One survey released last week found that 64 percent of Americans support requiring everyone to get a coronavirus vaccine. Another also showed the number around 6 in 10.

There’s a good, rational reason to prefer a vaccination mandate to a mask mandate: vaccination works to eliminate the risk, while masks do not. Masks may mitigate risk, but they aren’t anywhere near as effective as immunity, either natural or induced, at protecting against infection. There are very good reasons to oppose vaccination mandates on liberty and privacy grounds, but at least it’s a mandate that actually addresses the root risk directly.

Besides, with vaccinations reaching a saturation point among those willing to accept them, the time for masking up has largely passed. Mandates to protect the 17% who want to take the risk of non-inoculation would have to exist in perpetuity, and that’s clearly unworkable. It looks right now that such a reinstitution of mitigation strategies are unworkable even in the short run. It’s time to learn to live with COVID-19 as a chronic public-health issue rather than choose perpetual emergency.