Masks are here to stay. Therefore, understanding what your residents have to say about them is critical.

What is the data telling us? Mask-related discourse generated nearly 10 million online resident interactions since the beginning of May across the Zencity Network (an ICMA Strategic Partner) of 150 U.S. cities and counties. A spike in conversation took place during the second half of June, as reopening plans and state and local mask mandates came into effect. In the Mountain Plains Region, this accounted for nearly 25% of the total resident discourse. Residents mostly discuss masks in the context of retail and restaurants, followed by conversations related to events and open spaces.

Diving into city-specific data reveals the different concerns residents are voicing when opposing mask regulations, including infringement of rights, medical exemptions, and lack of evidence that masks help slow and prevent the spread of COVID-19. The data also shows that while enforcement can be a sensitive issue, local authorities can increase positive sentiment and compliance by sharing short, informative, and creative messaging about masks, supported by data and scientific evidence of their effectiveness.

For a detailed breakdown of mask-related discourse in your city, contact Zencity.

Several months into the pandemic, Americans are still divided on wearing masks. Despite research findings supporting the effectiveness of masks and the CDC’s recommendations that everyone wears a face mask in public, the lack of clear federal guidance leaves state and local government leaders with the challenge of setting their own policies. As a result, they are also challenged with their residents’ conflicting opinions on the matter.

Zencity analyzed public online interactions from over 150 cities and counties across the United States to understand what Americans are actually saying about face masks and what type of messaging works best.

Mask Mandates Escalate Online Reactions

Policies regarding mask-wearing vary from state to state, leading many local governments to impose their own regulations. This disparity is causing a spike in online public discourse on the topic of face masks, as more and more residents are taking to social media platforms to voice their opinions, concerns, and confusion.

Zencity’s data detected over 9.7 million online interactions about face masks that occurred during May and June. Interestingly, during the second half of June with reopening accelerated and as several states decided to delegate mandate-setting to local governments, public online discourse regarding face masks increased by over 300%.

This spike in Americans’ concern with face masks differs among ICMA regions. Interestingly, there is no clear correlation between the volume of online conversations regarding face coverings and the states in which they are required. In both the Mountain Plains and Southeast regions where state-level mandates are currently less prevalent than in other regions, discourse on the issue spiked earlier and higher, suggesting a stronger sense of interest in, as well as confusion about, the topic. This goes to show that not only regulation and enforcement are driving the public discourse, but also, and perhaps mostly, the lack thereof.

Masks in Local Businesses Drive the Conversation

Using an AI analysis based on keywords and context, we note that discourse surrounding face masks focuses primarily on businesses, with over 45% of interactions representing general comments about the local economy.  A further breakdown by topic reveals that residents are talking most about retail stores and shops, followed closely by restaurants, events, and entertainment, and parks and recreation.

Another common subject of interest is enforcement and the challenges businesses face in making 

sure that both employees and customers comply with face mask guidelines. For example, our data reveals that in one of the largest cities in Texas, 3,606 online interactions were related to enforcement, including comments that the burden of policing customers is a responsibility that should fall to the government and not to business owners themselves. As an example, the insight below highlighted the need to communicate more about the city’s approach to enforcing mask-wearing and what resources are available to businesses.

(the colors on the chart below indicate the sentiment - green is positive, red is negative and grey is neutral)

Seemingly, some residents consider masks to be a symbol of government intervention and a violation of their constitutional rights. In one Florida city, a Zencity analysis revealed that while 61% of resident feedback was in support of face covering, 39% was opposing. Most of those against stated they would not be wearing masks, claiming it is unconstitutional and not the government’s place to decide. Others simply argued that masks have not yet proven to be effective, leading the city to understand it needs to better communicate scientific findings about the effectiveness of face masks.

Another interesting example is from one of our big California cities where the colliding crises of COVID-19 and the George Floyd protests shifted residents’ main arguments about masks over time. As the insight below indicates, discourse with tones of solidarity about masks being a worthwhile, minor inconvenience for the safety of others gained upward traction—from 10% in May to 12% in June. In comparison, claims about masks being ineffective and unconstitutional diminished. By using this comparison, the city was able to better understand the drivers of conversations and address them accordingly through communication and policy.

Unmasking the Power of Communications

Getting your residents to actually wear the masks is tricky and is in part a behavioral issue. In times of heightened tensions between residents and police, masks enforcement is even more sensitive and challenging. Cities and counties are therefore turning to the power of good communications in an attempt to make masks a social norm and are using social enforcement as the means to keep that norm in place.

Short, visual, and concise messaging is key here. For best practices on mask messaging check out the full report.

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