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Statewide mask mandates help businesses stay alive, Utah study finds

‘When people feel more confident, they go out and they spend,’ professor says

From left, Peter Grinsell, Addi England, and Celeste Dorantes walk along Main Street in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.
From left, Peter Grinsell, Addi England, and Celeste Dorantes walk along Main Street in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A recent University of Utah study has concluded statewide mask mandates in fact do more to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and help businesses — more so than fragmented county mask mandates.

“State mask mandates are the key to this, whereas county mandates do not have near as much effect,” Dean Taylor Randall said during Gov. Gary Herbert’s COVID-19 press conference on Monday, when he highlighted the key findings of the study.

Researchers for the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah studied mask orders across the country, including all 3,142 U.S. counties.

Their findings, according to a summary of the study:

  1. COVID-19 cases decrease after mask orders are put in place.
  2. The combination of low case counts and mask requirements increase consumer activity in the economy.
  3. Consumer mobility (or consumers visiting more stores) increases after mask mandates are enacted.
  4. Spending increases in counties with mask mandates, with data showing consumer spending increases in counties with mask mandates relative to counties without mask mandates.
  5. State mask mandates are more effective than county-level requirements, with the study finding consumer spending “actually decreasing in counties with county-level mask requirements compared to areas under statewide requirements.”

“Now that’s a pretty big deal,” Randall said, “because we’ve got to find a way to bridge the health of our economy between now and when vaccines are widely distributed.”

Randall said the study found that wearing masks “creates a triple play.”

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

As part of the study, researchers conducted a consumer sentiment survey, which found “people would be 13% more likely to go to a store if confirmed COVID-19 cases fell by 10%.” The survey also found people would be a striking “51% more likely to go to a store if everyone was wearing a mask.”

In contrast, the survey also found that Utahns would be “13% less likely to go to a store if only half the people at the store were wearing masks.”

“The data is very clear that when people feel more confident, they go out and they spend,” said Nathan Seegert, an economic professor at the University of Utah who helped author the report. “So it is important for these policies to increase confidence. And that’s what we see.”

Seegert said researchers used data from Google that used millions of cellphone GPS locations from across the country that “registers when people go out to stores” to track how people were responding to mask mandates. Researchers also used data from credit card spending to track spending habits — which found where there were statewide mask mandates, there was an increase is credit card spending.

“When these requirements are put in place, more people are wearing masks, and we see an increase in economic activity, which is good for everyone,” Seegert said.

The study also found statewide mandates accomplish this better than county mandates after analyzing 136 counties in 29 states which have county-level mask requirements, and 37 states that have state-level mask requirements.

“Statewide mask mandates play a real key role in this,” Randall said. “We see in cases of statewide mandates we get the triple play: reduced COVID cases, increased mobility and increased consumer spending. That is not the case if a county does it alone.”

Seegert said many counties across the U.S. enacted mandates since April, so researchers could “use that as a laboratory to look really at the effectiveness of these different requirements.”

“The thing that really pops out is that statewide mask mandates are much more effective at both saving lives and livelihoods,” Seegert said. “They have a much larger effect on the economy. They boost consumer confidence more than these county mandates.”

Seegert said before this research, “there was an open question: Maybe we should put these mask requirements to different levels of government. What this research shows very clearly is that a statewide mask mandate has the biggest effect in terms of increasing consumer confidence and thus allowing people to go out and spend in the economy.”

The study’s findings come the same day Herbert extended his own statewide mask mandate. That order came only after the governor spent months declining to issue a statewide mask mandate, and after counties that wanted to issue mask mandates — like Salt Lake County and Summit County — were required to seek permission from the governor to do so.

The findings also come as Utahns protesting the statewide mask mandate have demonstrated outside the homes of Herbert, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox. and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

But the study concluded statewide mask mandates have been doing more to help businesses stay alive amid the pandemic.

“We now have some significant evidence that health and economics go hand in hand,” Randall said. “At the core of this relationship is mask wearing and consumer confidence. There appears to be an increased ability for consumers to engage in our economy if they feel safe and if they are wearing masks.”

When asked what he’d say to those protesting Utah’s mask mandates today, Randall, in a separate news conference to explain the study in more detail, told reporters, “We’re all facing a set of tradeoffs here.”

“If you choose to not wear masks, you’re causing the confidence of your community to decrease, which means you’ll see reduced economic activity,” he said. “To me, the findings are fairly compelling that if we want to push the boundary, meaning we want to have better health and a better economy during this really critical time, we really should just wear masks.”

Economist Natalie Gochnour, associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business, said economists “know economies don’t follow county boundaries. They don’t respect county boundaries. Economies are regional and they cross county lines.”

“So it makes a lot of sense to me that what happens in Salt Lake County, what happens in Utah County, Tooele, Summit, Davis, Weber are all part of a single northern Utah metropolitan county and so you’d see a lot more confidence with state action there than you would in individual county boundaries.”

Randall, summing up the findings, echoed Herbert’s call to all Utahns to wear masks.

“Mask up, Utah,” Randall said. “Both to protect our health and our businesses and our jobs.”