Keeping a Business Safe without a Mask Mandate Requires a Nuanced Approach

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All remaining states in the United States with COVID-related public face mask requirements have been lifted. In mid-April, a Florida district judge ended a federal mandate for public transport, including trains, planes and buses. In spite of recent increases in COVID infection, consumers are now able to shop, exercise, travel, work, and lounge in public places for the first time in two years.

Since onset of pandemic, most restaurants and grocery stores have adhered to state and national guidelines requiring that masks . be worn HTML3_ HTML3_ These mandates have been lifted and companies are now responsible for determining and communicating their mask policies. Many have recommended that customers and employees wear masks to prevent the spread COVID .

There are several reasons companies may still wish to have a store mask policy: First, the virus remains highly transmissible and unpredictable; COVID hospitalization in Maine has been high recently, despite a population vaccination rate of 80 percent. Companies may want to protect their employees’ health and safety to avoid any complications that could arise from a larger COVID epidemic. Second, retailers must attract customers and appeal to a broad range of customers. According to an Associated Press poll conducted in late April, 49 percent of U.S. adults were in favor of requiring masks for restaurant and store workers who interact with customers, and 56 percent support them for people traveling on airplanes, trains or public transit.

As behavioral scientists who study consumer behavior, we looked deeper into the public’s response to mask policies. We found that mask policies are used by consumers as a proxy for the company’s political identity. This leads consumers to punish or reward businesses based on what’s posted on their doors. Many businesses were affected by the pandemic, many of them to the point that they had to close permanently. This makes it even more important for businesses to avoid alienating large sections of their customers.

Today and for the indefinite near future, COVID remains with us. We don’t know if it will become more severe or more deadly. Businesses that want to implement a mask policy must be careful not to get trolled by the government. Larger companies should establish their policies at the corporate level so that they are consistent across all offices and stores. Companies should communicate that they are establishing a policy to ensure their employees are healthy and allow them to continue to provide services to the community. Consistent behavior and communication of the apolitical motives behind a policy can reduce company politicization as well as consumer retaliation.

As part of our research, we surveyed 5,560 people across eight studies during the COVID pandemic to evaluate consumer response to company policies regarding mask wearing, and how such policies influence both consumers’ beliefs about the business and their interest in shopping there. In our studies, we asked people to evaluate stores with storefront signs communicating that masks are required, recommended or not required; or where the sign does not communicate a mask policy (and simply says “we are open”).

We found that consumers often inferred that stores were political based on their mask policy. Stores that did not require masks were perceived as conservative, while stores that required them were liberal. Those without a policy were perceived as neither conservative nor liberal, while stores that recommended masks were neutral or slightly liberal. These perceptions were stable across political ideologies and demographic groups. Nearly everyone agrees with the notion that a company with a liberal mask policy is liberal.

Despite this belief, we find that public reactions to store policies are polarized in the same way as partisan responses to government policy. This means that consumers’ perceptions of whether a store’s mask policy is a result of a political agenda will depend on their political ideology. The study found that conservative consumers believed that mask policies in stores were politically motivated. They expressed a desire to boycott the stores and not make purchases. Liberal consumers thought the stores were doing the right thing for the public health and wanted to reward them by patronage.

Responses have changed significantly to these mask policies in the last few weeks, as mandates for mask wearing have been lifted. When the norm (and the public safety guideline) required masks, companies were able to recommend but not require masks. This policy appealed to liberal consumers, who encouraged mask wearing, but also appealed conservative consumers who had the option to choose from a variety of masks.

Many people believed that indoor mask mandates at the national and state levels would harm business. We found the opposite. Consumers did not see the mask mandate as a political statement because they were being forced to apply it to companies. Companies were simply seen as following the law. Government mandates were effective in avoiding consumer alienation and increasing compliance.

Now that the mask mandates have been lifted we can see that a company’s mask policy sends out a stronger political signal that it did during the pandemic. The mask mandates are now seen as more liberal and politically motivated across all spectrums. Mask recommendations are no longer the best business option, as they are not appealing to conservative consumers (although still appealing to liberals). The best way to implement COVID policy has become more nuanced.

There are three ways businesses, especially those located in conservative areas, communicate a store-mask policy without being seen as too political. First, a corporate-level policy. It sets a precedent for all consumers to be treated equally. A corporate strategy also protects local managers from negative reactions from conservative consumers. Our research shows that mask mandates are more appealing to conservatives when they are attributed to external sources (e.g., a government mandate, or a larger company policy), shifting the blame and responsibility away from the store.

Second: Companies can attribute mask policies business concerns such as keeping employees healthy and their doors open. This can help consumers see that there are other motives, which can encourage greater patronage and compliance.

Third: Companies may consider whether their operational or intraorganizational features already signal a liberal ideological orientation (for instance, a grocer that sells organic, fair-trade products) and communicate policies that are consistent with this ideology. Companies with a mission to improve social equity and health might benefit from communicating their company mission statement along with their mask policy. A mask policy that is consistent with the larger company belief system can be perceived as a company that wants to behave consistently. This can lead to greater trust and patronage.

Since the novel coronavirus was first identified in the U.S. in early 2020, there have been more than 81 million cases and likely more than one million deaths. Although the number of cases has dropped in recent months, the unpredictable nature of the virus continues to hinder businesses’ ability to be safe and appeal to a broad range customers. This requires a nuanced approach for COVID policies.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


    Isabella Bunosso is a Ph.D. student in marketing at the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State University.

      Grant E. Donnelly is an assistant professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business at the Ohio State Un

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