New research published in Scientific Reports has found that people spent less time at home after face mask mandates were implemented, although investigators do not know whether this exposed Americans to a greater risk of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) infection.

Investigators used anonymized location data from smart devices to examine changes in behavior of residents 2 weeks before and 2 weeks after mask mandates were implemented in regions of the United States. They found that residents spent between 11 and 24 more minutes outside their homes after a face mask mandate was issued, even as COVID-19 rates were rising.

Individuals increased trips to a variety of places—most often restaurants and other eateries, as well as to recreational locations such as parks. The investigators said these were likely trips that they were not taking prior to the mask mandate. When people are expected to wear a mask, they perceived a lower risk associated with leaving home and visiting public locations, according to the study.

The researchers said they do not know whether this behavior increased or reduced infections. The central question asked whether masks are effective enough to offset the risks of exposure when increasing time outside of the home. The answer depends on the relative effectiveness of masks, whether they are worn properly, and other behaviors. Cases of COVID-19 increased in some states and decreased in others despite mask orders, the study noted.

Researcher Eli Fenichel, PhD, who has studied the economics of human infectious diseases and behavioral responses including during the H1N1 pandemic, said he was interested in examining the issue after his friends and family mentioned last spring that they were going out to public places “but that they would wear a mask.”

In a press release, he said he wanted to explore whether requiring masks were prompting people to engage in riskier activities.

“It seems like a lot of people felt like the mask was a form of protection for them,” Feninchel said in a press release. “So, the question was, were the masks good enough to actually justify this behavioral shift? I still don’t think we know. I still think that there’s a lot of uncertainty around that. Wearing a face mask is hard, [and] it needs to be done correctly, too.”

Feninchel said it is also important to investigate how the wide range of non-pharmaceutical interventions interact and prompt other behavioral effects that could worsen the risks of contracting COVID-19.

“I think we need to understand how they interact,” he explained. “It isn’t that we shouldn’t have had the face mask mandates. It’s really trying to understand how it all works. We need to think about how these things come together. There are no easy answers.”

REFERENCE
Study Finds Americans Went Out More After Face Mask Mandates [news release]. Yale School of the Environment; February 5, 2021. https://environment.yale.edu/news/article/study-finds-americans-went-out-more-after-face-mask-mandates/. Accessed February 16, 2021.