Where are the Wearers: Investigating American Mask Usage

Article by Georgia Dietz and Leo Kitchell

“No Mask, No Service” has become a common, and polarizing, refrain across America. News outlets have been quick to discuss the impact of partisan ideology and racial identity on Americans’ willingness to wear face coverings, yet new analysis from the Lowe Institute finds that popular narratives surrounding race do not hold up after accounting for interstate variation.

Americans’ willingness to wear masks varies greatly by region. Hover over a county to learn more. 

In the past few months, masks have become an essential clothing item for most Americans. Federal guidelines recommend that everyone wear a face covering in any social interaction to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while keeping social interactions to a minimum. Still, not everyone is on board with always using a mask even when interacting in the six feet recommendation. On average, only 80% of Americans wear a mask most of the time when expecting to be in close environments. This average conceals significant variation across counties. Our data confirm the popular conception that mask-behavior is correlated with partisan affiliation; residents of states with Democratic governors and in areas with Democratic voters are more likely to wear masks. But once we take party into account, race has a relatively small additional effect.

Using data from 250,000 survey respondents across the United States, our analysis uses state fixed effects to isolate variation between different counties within a state. This enables us to measure the effects of demographic variables separately from the effects of a state’s ideology and Covid regulations. After controlling for common demographic variables and state fixed effects, we find that white Americans are more likely to wear a mask when they expect to be within six feet of others than their non-white counterparts. 

This may seem counterintuitive, given that a simple breakdown of mask wearing by racial group predicts that 44% of residents in entirely white counties will respond “always” when asked “How often do you wear a mask in public when you expect to be within six feet of another person?” By contrast, this number jumps to 72% in entirely non-white counties. The conclusion then, is that white Americans are more likely to live in states which are less concerned with Covid and mask wearing. But, crucially, when compared to residents of their own state, white Americans are more likely to wear masks. 

While rural counties frequently reported less mask usage, this trend was actually driven by politics and race, rather than population density.


Our surprising results expand beyond race, too. A county’s population density had no significant effect on responses, likely due in part to the wording of the question, which asks respondents to consider only cases of physical proximity. A county’s education level also had no significant effect, although variables that are highly correlated with education such as income level and partisan affiliation did have an impact. 

Mask wearing is also correlated with the behavior of local voters and state political leaders. A 10 point jump in a county’s democratic vote share (as measured by the 2016 presidential election) resulted in an additional 3.8 percent of the population responding that they always wear a mask. For comparison, a 10 point increase in a county’s population of white people resulted in a mere 0.6 percentage point increase in “always” responses. We also found a clear impact of political leadership. Inconsistent federal guidelines have placed great responsibility in the hands of state governors, and residents appear to be paying attention. States with Democratic governors, who have generally promoted Covid precautions, saw an additional 8.8 percent of the population respond “always” as compared to their Republican counterparts.

Although mask wearing may be a political issue, the threat of Covid should not be; always remember to abide by CDC guidelines to protect yourself and those around you.