Study finds wearing masks could relax attitudes toward social distancing regulations

Covid-19: Masks affect social distancing
Shorter distances with masks (August de Richelieu/Pexels)
Written by Marcia Zali

A study in the United Kingdom finds that people are willing to ignore social distancing requirements when in the company of those who wore masks. South Africans also said masks made them feel safer.

A new study found that the wearing face masks affects people’s attitude towards social distancing regulations. Those wearing masks feel more comfortable to be sitting or standing closer to others in masks, the study found. The distance between ends up being smaller than the recommended 2 metres.

This more relaxed attitude toward distance could make it harder to re-establish social distancing requirements in the event of a second wave, researchers at the Warwick Business School in the United Kingdom found. This places an emphasis on wearing masks as the most effective way to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“Our findings appear to be a classic case of risk compensation,” says Ashley Luckman, a research fellow the school and lead author of the ‘Risk compensation during Covid-19’ study.

“Wearing masks brings down the overall risk of spreading Covid-19, so people feel safer and are more willing to take other risks, such as decreasing the physical distance between them and others,” says Luckman.

“If the government’s aim is to minimise transmission of the virus, its guidelines must be clear enough to prevent this trade-off, emphasising that masks are not an alternative to social distancing,” she adds.

Presenting different scenarios

Researchers presented the 800 participants of the study with various images of social distancing scenarios. In these, people were either sitting, standing or walking. Researchers asked participants where they would be willing to stand in these scenarios.

The scenarios included indoor and outdoor settings where both people, one of them or neither of them wore a face mask. On average, participants were more comfortable with standing 1.8 metres from a mask wearing person. They preferred a 2-metre distance was preferred in a scenario where a mask was not worn. These findings contradict expectations that people would politely maintain a greater distance from others who wore masks.

“Our results could be particularly relevant for countries where mask usage is now high, but social distancing guidelines have been relaxed, ” says Daniel Read, a behavioural science professor at Warwick Business School.

“If countries need to return to greater levels of physical distancing due to a second wave of cases, that may be harder to implement than it was when mask use was low at the start of the pandemic,” he adds.

Researchers, however, need more evidence to determine at which point the risks associated with reducing physical distance outweigh the benefits of wearing a mask.

“Clearly, the greatest benefit results from using masks to complement social distancing, rather than replacing it,” adds Read.

The South African perspective

Health-e spoke to some South Africans to learn their views on the impact masks have on social distancing.

“I don’t think the mask is 100% effective in preventing one from contracting the virus,” says Thobeka Zwane. She believes it is still important to maintain social distancing when everyone is wearing a mask. Zwane says she is not comfortable being in the same space with someone who is not wearing a mask.

“I feel annoyed when people are not wearing masks because I don’t trust them. They might have the virus and aren’t aware of it so I could get infected. They are inconsiderate for not wearing masks in public,” says Zwane.

Hlamalani Mahundla is less anxious when wearing a mask in public, but is also uncomfortable being around people without masks.

“It releases the stress a bit, knowing that I won’t be inhaling Covid-19 contaminated air but I am uncomfortable with being in the same space with someone who is not wearing a mask,” she says.

Mahundla also believes that it is essential to maintain social distancing remains essential to avoid infection. – Health-e News

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Marcia Zali