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Fewer than half of Wisconsin grocery shoppers mask up

UW-Madison observational study shows 41% of customers cover their faces during the pandemic

Megan Alanen connects ties to a facemask at the Stitchery in Superior Tuesday, April 14. (File / Superior Telegram)

An observational study of grocery store customers in 20 Wisconsin counties last month shows less than half the shoppers wore masks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that people wear face coverings in public places to reduce spread of the new coronavirus. There is concern among health officials about whether people are taking this precaution.

"We think of masking as this seemingly simple intervention, but it’s rather complex," said Dr. Nasia Safdar, associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

"Just like anything else, there’s habit and memory. You have to remember to take a mask, get into the habit of that — and this is not a country that has ever done that before so it’s a new thing for people to learn," she explained.

Safdar oversaw a study by students in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Medical Scientist Training Program that found 41 percent of 3,271 grocery shoppers observed between May 16 and June 1 had their face covered as they exited the store.


A Gallup poll conducted in April showed 68 percent of Americans claimed to "always" or "sometimes" wear a face mask in public.

Student researchers went to 26 grocery stores around the state and found women were more likely than men to wear a mask and younger individuals were less likely to do so. There was a wide range in how many customers wore masks. In Adams County, 6.8 percent of shoppers wore face coverings, the lowest of the 20 counties studied. Dane County was the highest at 69 percent. Brown County was nearly 38 percent. Milwaukee was 41 percent.

Public health officials around Wisconsin have urged people to wear masks, especially when they may have difficulty staying 6 feet from others in a confined space. Some private businesses require customers to do so, and Milwaukee County requires it for most county-owned facilities and recommends it for Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.

But there has been pushback against such policies across the nation as individual rights and public responsibility clash. In Wisconsin, Stevens Point police say a man harassed Asian Americans at a grocery store in May. According to a statement from the Stevens Point Police Department , "customers were called names and harassed for wearing masks because of their race."

Public health officials around the state have encouraged people to wear face masks, although it is not required in Wisconsin.

"We encourage everyone who is able to wear a face covering when it's not possible to physically distance. Wearing a face covering and practicing social distancing is just another way we take care of each other and take responsibility for the health of our community," Christy Vogt, health educator for Public Health Madison & Dane County, said in a statement.

The agency was more pointed in remarks posted on social media: It tweeted "We can do much better! Don’t leave home without your masks, folks!" in reference to the unpublished UW study showing 41 percent of grocery shoppers wore face coverings.

The study’s authors say the results suggest the need to develop ways to promote face coverings and examine the reasons why individuals choose not to wear face coverings in public.


Wisconsin Public Radio can be heard in the Twin Ports at 91.3 FM or online at wpr.org/news .

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