RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The percentage of North Carolinians saying they always wear face coverings in public has dropped over the past month, according to data compiled by researchers tracking those trends.
The latest executive order from Gov. Roy Cooper increases capacity limits at several types of establishments, including bars and restaurants — where it’s more difficult to wear a mask at all times to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It raises questions about whether the mask mandate can continue to be effective if those places are more crowded.
Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, calls bars and restaurants “a challenging setting.”
“We are cautiously optimistic that we can begin to turn our dials back,” she said.
Beginning at 5 p.m. Friday, restaurants and other places of medium risk may operate at up to 75 percent capacity while bars and other higher-risk settings may open at up to 50 percent capacity.
Those larger crowds carry a higher risk, so the key is to lower that risk — even if only by a little — by following an important provision of the existing executive order: Always keep a mask on unless actively eating or drinking.
“To the extent that you’re continuously eating and drinking, that’s the time when you can’t keep your mask on,” Sickbert-Bennett said. “But certainly, as you enter restaurants and are getting seated and getting settled at your table and interacting with waitstaff, having your mask on does limit transmission potential in that manner.”
A study last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found counties that opened in-person dining indoors had faster rates of new COVID-19 cases and deaths, while those rates were lower in counties with mask mandates.
But masks only work if you wear them — and the data suggest North Carolinians aren’t doing so quite as often as before.
Survey data collected by researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation found that 74 percent of state residents said March 9 — the most recent data available — they always wear masks in public. That rate was 78 percent in mid-February.
That mirrors the slight drop nationally from 78 percent on Feb. 12 to 75 percent on March 11.
In South Carolina — where there is no mask mandate — there was also a drop of five percentage points but from a lower starting point, 74 percent in mid-February to 69 percent in mid-March.
Those drops might reflect the fatigue associated with a yearlong pandemic, Sickbert-Bennett said.
“In terms of the public and the fatigue associated maybe with keeping up some of these control strategies, it is really important to realize the things that matter most last spring, we threw everything we had towards COVID,” Sickbert-Bennett said. “And I think we wore ourselves out quite a bit.
“Our masks are doing three really important functions of stopping virus transmission, and that is probably singly the most important thing for us to hold on to through this pandemic,” she added.
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.