Compulsory face masks polices do not increase community mobility: Lessons from Germany

There is a real concern amongst policymakers and researchers that compulsory face mask policies could back-fire.
- Maurice Dunaiski, Department of Government
covid-19 London 747 560

The introduction of a compulsory face mask policy in Germany has not lead to increased community mobility in public spaces - as some feared it might - a new working paper has found.

In the study, the researchers examined the staggered implementation of compulsory face mask policies by German states in April 2020. These policies required the wearing of face masks in shops and on public transport. The researchers used GPS data from smart phones to measure the impact these policies had on mobility in public spaces.

Contrary to concerns that mandatory face mask policies may backfire - with wearers feeling safer with the masks and disregarding public health advice to stay at home -  the researchers found the new policy did not result in increased mobility. People continued to stay indoors and limit their visits to public spaces.

The authors suggest there could be two reasons for this: salience and the ‘hassle factor’. Salience refers to the idea that face masks may serve as a constant reminder to citizens that the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing and serious.

The ‘hassle factor’ relates to the fact face masks are often bothersome and uncomfortable to use. The researchers hypothesise this could put people off non-essential outings and could encourage them to minimise the frequency of essential outings.

With face masks compulsory on public transport in England and debate about whether they should be mandatory in other public spaces, these findings could help alleviate policy makers’ concerns about compulsory policies leading to an increase in community mobility.

Commenting on the findings, study co-author Maurice Dunaiski, a doctoral candidate from the Department of Government at LSE said: “There is a real concern amongst policymakers and researchers that compulsory face mask policies could back-fire. If the public feel safer as a result and spend more time in public spaces this could undermine the most important public-health advice to contain COVID-19, which is to maintain social distancing and reduce mobility. This concern was expressed by a number of key actors in the global response to the pandemic, like the White House coordinator on COVID-19, Dr Deborah Birx, or the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

Lead author Dr Roxanne Kovacs, a Research Fellow in Health Economics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, added: “As more and more countries introduce compulsory face mask policies, it is important to determine whether there are counterproductive spill overs on mobility. Our study is the first to do so. We find no evidence that these policies increased mobility in public spaces such as grocery stores, pharmacies, transit hubs, and workplaces. If anything, we find a small temporary reduction in mobility on the day the policy is introduced, but no longer-term effects.

“My sense is that our results should, to some degree, alleviate policymakers’ concerns that compulsory face mask policies could back-fire by increasing mobility."

The paper  - Compulsory face mask policies do not affect community mobility in Germany  - was authored by Roxanne Kovacs, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Maurice Dunaiski, London School of Economics; and Janne Tukiainen, University of Turku.

For a copy of the paper, please visit: