Statewide mask mandates help shoppers feel safe and spend more, Utah study shows

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Masks in use in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020.

Mandatory mask-wearing is proven to lower the incidence of COVID-19 infections, save lives and boost commercial activity, a new Utah study says.

Researchers with the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business examined thousands of state and county mask orders across the country and found that coronavirus cases fell after mask requirements were put in place.

The study, by researchers at the school’s Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis, also indicates that low case counts and mask mandates significantly raised consumer confidence, upping the amount people spend and the number of places these shoppers visit.

“Mask requirements can increase consumer confidence by making economic activity safer — in this way, health and economics reinforce each other,” said researcher and U. assistant finance professor Nathan Seegert, one of the study’s authors.

Seegert was joined in the study by U.-based researchers Mac Gaulin, Mu-Jeung Yang, and Francisco Navarro-Sanchez. They concluded, among other things, that mask usage is effective for promoting economic activity until a vaccine becomes widely available — and that statewide orders on masks have more impact than ones issued by individual counties.

Taylor Randall, dean of the U.’s business school, said the new research makes clear that mask-wearing “creates a triple play.”

“It reduces COVID spread in our communities,” he said, “but it also increases consumer mobility in stores and restaurants and also increases consumer spending.”

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News, pool) Taylor Randall, economic lead on Utah’s Unified Command COVID-19 Response Team and dean of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and Utah speaks during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

Presented on Monday as part of Gov. Gary Herbert’s weekly briefing on the health crisis, the study’s findings were also offered as further encouragement for residents to stick with public measures — mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing — that state and health officials have urged since the pandemic first struck Utah.

Randall called the findings fairly compellingwith regard to how individual choices on mask-wearing affect the common good.

We’re all facing a set of trade-offs here,” he said. “If you choose to not wear masks, you’re causing the confidence of your community to decrease, which means you will see reduced economic activity.

“If we want to push the boundary, meaning we want to have better health and a better economy during this really critical time,” Randall added, “we really should wear masks.”

The study, which examined 3,142 U.S. counties between April and September, found that statewide mask mandates proved measurably more effective at promoting commerce than county-level edicts did.

In fact, statewide mandates were shown to help economic activity while county mandates generally depressed it, according to the study.

Researchers said county mask orders might unintentionally signal that infection risks had risen locally, leading consumers to social distance more and lower their spending.

The thing that really pops out,” Seegert said, “is that statewide mask mandates are much more effective at both saving lives and livelihoods.”

Positive effects of mask orders were seen both immediately after states enacted them and up to two months after they took effect, the researchers found.

Those findings did not change substantially when data was adjusted for other health restrictions often put in place alongside mask edicts, such as limits on gatherings or school or business closures, the study found.

Researchers based their findings on data on mask orders and measured economic activity using cellphone location data from Google and credit-card transaction and other information obtained from two private data providers, SafeGraph and Facteus.

A state consumer sentiment survey, conducted alongside the mask study, yielded specific measures on how Utahns were responding. It found residents were 13% more likely to visit a store if confirmed COVID-19 cases fell by 10%.

Taylor said their mobility went up, too, meaning they shopped at more locations and spent more heavily. And in scenarios where confirmed cases fell by greater percentages, consumer sentiment among Utahns rose even further, the study found.

More crucially, the research indicated consumers in the state were 51% more likely to shop if everyone was required to wear a mask. Conversely, the survey found Utahns were 13% less likely to visit a store if only half of those at the store were wearing a mask.

We now have some significant evidence that health and economics go hand in hand,” Randall said. “And at the core of this relationship is mask-wearing and consumer confidence.

The findings come at a key inflection point for Utah’s economy, a top academic said. The state has so far fared better than the nation as a whole economically and a vaccine is on its way, noted Natalie Gochnour, an economist who also heads the U.’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

But rising case rates, Gochnour said, threaten to “cripple consumer confidence and take away from our interest in engaging in the economy because we fear for our safety.”

The new research, she said, indicated mask usage “is part of controlling our destiny” by increasing economic confidence so “we can get back on our feet faster.”