Poll: Most Americans now favor mask mandates to slow Delta's rapid spread

·West Coast Correspondent
·5-min read

As the hypercontagious Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to fuel a new wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the U.S. — and as scientists discover that vaccinated people can experience breakthrough infections and transmit Delta more often than expected — a clear majority of Americans once again favors public mask mandates, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll. 

This sharp and sudden reversal from past surveys reflects growing fears about Delta and resurgent pessimism about the pandemic itself.

The survey of 1,552 U.S. adults, which was conducted from July 30 to Aug. 2, found that a full 55 percent favor making it “mandatory to wear masks in public”; 45 percent are opposed. 

Just two and a half weeks ago, those numbers were nearly reversed. In late June, the public opposed mask mandates by a 60 to 40 percent margin. 

And despite all the consternation and commentary it has generated over the last week, the new, narrower guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending a return to indoor public masking in high-transmission areas is even more popular, garnering a far lower level of opposition (31 percent) and a slightly higher level of support (56 percent).

The reason for this shift is simple: In the wake of last week’s whiplash-inducing news, many Americans agree that the “war has changed” because of Delta, as one CDC document put it.

One-third of Americans, for instance, now believe “the worst of the U.S. pandemic is still to come,” a 14-point increase since mid-July. More (38 percent) still say “the worst is already behind us,” but that number has plummeted from 49 percent in July and 58 percent in May. Meanwhile, the perception that most Americans “are underestimating the risks” of COVID-19, which as few as 31 percent of respondents shared in May, soared to 44 percent on this survey — the highest level since November 2020.

To be clear, the existing vaccines remain effective and highly protective against serious illness, hospitalization and death from Delta, and vaccinated Americans are much less likely to get infected — and therefore much less likely to spread the virus — than unvaccinated Americans.

Still, breakthrough infections are occurring. According to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll, a striking 25 percent of Americans now say they personally know someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 during the last month, and nearly half of that group says the infected person was either partially or fully vaccinated.

As a result, vaccinated Americans in particular are starting to see the pandemic as something they need to worry about again. Overall, two-thirds of the public (65 percent) now say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried about the Delta variant spreading in the U.S., up 8 points over the last few weeks. But worries among vaccinated Americans — which rose 11 points, from 70 to 81 percent — accounted for most of that change. In contrast, just 38 percent of unvaccinated Americans say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried about Delta — a number that has inched up just 4 points since mid-July.

Likewise, 40 percent of those who’d heard of Delta last month said it “poses a serious risk to unvaccinated Americans,” compared with 32 percent who said it “poses a serious risk to all Americans.” A few short weeks later, those numbers have flipped: 42 percent now say Delta threatens all Americans, while just 32 percent say it threatens only unvaccinated people. Again, vaccinated Americans are the ones who have changed their minds the most.

This means that the people who already have the most protection against Delta (i.e., vaccinated Americans) are far more likely to favor such protection than those who actually still need it (i.e., unvaccinated Americans).

Masks are a prime example. According to the poll, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of vaccinated Americans think masks should be mandatory (a number that shot up 17 points over the last few weeks). Fewer than half (44 percent) of unvaccinated Americans say the same (up just 3 points since last month).

Similarly, nearly three-quarters of vaccinated Americans (71 percent) favor the CDC’s recommendation that they resume wearing masks indoors to slow transmission, even though Delta poses little risk to their own health. Yet just 37 percent of unvaccinated Americans agree with the CDC guidance — even though they’re getting far sicker and spreading far more virus than those who’ve been jabbed.

And when Americans are asked how Delta affects their own attitudes toward masking up in public, twice as many vaccinated Americans (71 percent) as unvaccinated Americans (37 percent) say the variant makes them “more likely to wear a mask” — while twice as many unvaccinated Americans (53 percent) as vaccinated Americans (25 percent) say it makes “no difference.”

Covid-19 restrictions stay in place in the subway system in New York City on August 2, 2021.  (Star MAX/IPx via AP)
COVID-19 restrictions remain in place in New York City’s subway system. (Star MAX/IPx via AP)

It remains to be seen whether masking continues to make a comeback due to the new CDC guidance, mandates from local governments and Delta’s continued spread. But so far, any increases have largely served to further shield vaccinated people and reduce their role in transmission. Over the last week, more vaccinated Americans (52 percent) reported wearing a mask in public “always” or “almost always” than in mid-July (44 percent). Frequent masking among unvaccinated people — 42 percent previously, 43 percent now — remained essentially unchanged.

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The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,552 U.S. adults interviewed online from July 30 to Aug. 2, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or non-vote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.7 percent.

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