Seventy-four percent of Tennesseans surveyed say they support mask requirements in their local communities, according to a new survey by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
Results show Tennesseans have an increasing concern for their safety as the coronavirus pandemic worsens across the state and country. It is the first time in the ongoing survey that the Baker Center’s polling has shown that the majority of Tennesseans are more concerned about health as opposed to the economic impacts of COVID-19.
Other important findings released Tuesday:
- 77% of Tennesseans say they wear masks themselves when going out in public. About 85% of survey respondents said that masks protected the wearers or other people nearby from catching or spreading COVID-19.
- Only 9% of Tennesseans surveyed believe there is no benefit to wearing a mask.
- 68% percent of Tennesseans surveyed said that wearing a mask was a matter of public health.
- Only 7% said that they believed it was a political message.
The survey results come at a time when face masks, widely accepted as one of the best ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus, have become politicized. President Trump and senior Republican leaders have attempted to support face masks, but many conservatives remain vocally opposed to mandates.
Several anti-mask demonstrations have occurred across the state, particularly in Chattanooga, and an anti-mask sentiment has been a notable component of protests nationwide. Anti-mask sentiment is a fixture of conspiracy theories on social media.
“I think there is a vocal minority that is opposed to masks,” said Matthew Murray, Baker Center director and author of the survey. “It’s a significant minority but they are the ones that are probably being very influential in many individual counties in the state.
“And I think the majority is relatively silent in some respect with regard to their desire for the masks.”
This is the latest survey in a series conducted bi-weekly since the start of summer.
The survey was conducted under the auspices of the Governor’s Economic Recovery Group. In a recent press conference, Gov. Bill Lee said the survey results did not change his mind about issuing a statewide mask mandate.
“Local buy-in is what really gets folks to wear masks. Local authorities or local elected officials that are advocating for this … are a lot more compelling than a state dictate,” Lee said when asked about the survey.
The governor said about 70% of the state’s population is under a mask requirement, with new additions each week. Vanderbilt University reports that 26 counties had issued mask orders and the orders covered 68% of state residents.
Early in July, Lee issued an executive order to grant county authorities to issue mask mandates.
A recent Vanderbilt University analysis found that Tennessee hospitals serving areas where the majority of people were not subject to a mask order saw 200% increases in hospitalizations for COVID-19 over the month of July.
Some municipalities are at odds with their surrounding counties with respect to masks mandates. Notably, the Oak Ridge City Council passed a resolution asking the governor to give leaders of cities and towns the authority to require masking. Oak Ridge is in Anderson county, which has not issued a mask order.
Other survey highlights
The UT survey also found most people would opt for a COVID-19 vaccine if they could get it for free. 45% percent of people said they would definitely get the vaccine and 20% of people said they would probably get the vaccine. Only 21% said they probably or definitely would not vaccinate against COVID-19.
The study designers say the results are consistent with broad support for other public health measures, like physical distancing.
The majority of survey respondents rated declining coronavirus case loads as the most important factor in their decision to resume normal activities in public. Murray believes these all may be related.
“Declining caseloads are indirectly related to masks. If we have masks, we have the promise of reduced caseloads.” he said. “Vaccines are the other mechanism (for declining case loads).”
But the results may be a cause for concern.
Murray notes that approximately one-third of respondents would not or might not get vaccinated for COVID-19. This is lower than a Gallup poll found earlier this year, where 84% of American adults said they supported childhood vaccination. That’s a problem for achieving herd immunity, population-wide resistance to the spread of an illness.
For most illnesses, more than 80% of the population needs to get vaccinated and develop long-term immunity in order to curtail spread. For highly infectious diseases, like measles, the herd immunity threshold can be much higher.
About the survey
The survey polled 1,075 Tennesseans across the state. It was the fourth poll run by the Baker Center at the behest of Lee’s Economic Recovery Group. Researchers have been surveying Tennesseans once every two weeks in an ongoing effort to gauge people’s sense of safety and economic well-being as the state reopens. The goal is to see in “real time” how people are responding to the pandemic.
The survey accounts for age, gender, race and whether the respondent lives in a rural or urban county. Rural counties are defined as one of the 89 counties that lack their own health department.
Not all survey questions were asked each round. Some have remained consistent. Others, like the questions about masks, are new to this round of surveys.
It’s not clear how accurate the survey is with regard to whether Tennesseans actually wear masks in public as often as they report they do. According to a recent analysis by the New York Times mask wearing is uncommon throughout much of the state.
Murray noted in an interview that this poll showed a marked increase in pessimism among Tennesseans as the worsening pandemic spread throughout the state and nation.
When asked how their concerns changed over the past two weeks, half of Tennesseans surveyed said they were more concerned about COVID-19 than they were two weeks ago. The previous poll found that only 31% of people felt the same way earlier.
Only 16% of people said they thought the situation would improve two weeks from now.
“What we are trying to draw attention to here in the most recent wave of the survey is that Tennesseans have become more pessimistic.” said Murray, “And they are increasingly concerned about their own potential to contract COVID-19.”