Yet debates are still raging in several countries about their use, and some regions have recently removed mandates for people to carry them in crowded spaces.
“Masks remain a symbol of a divided society – between those who feel we have limited too much and those who feel we have not intervened enough during the pandemic,” said Simon Williams, an associate professor of Covid-19 behavior. at Swansea University in Wales, CNN reported.
With the prospect of another winter pandemic, some countries are struggling with calls to return to mask use. But they face opposition from people who are tired of endless mixed messages – and many experts fear that in countries where the rules have been relaxed, reintroducing mandates can be complicated.
The first days of the pandemic saw early hesitation over the use of face masks by governments and the World Health Organization (WHO), amid fears that a rush for masks would leave frontline workers without adequate protective equipment. But as the world learned more about Covid-19, their use became widespread in mid-2020.
“Masks help filter out aerosol that forms in our airways when we breathe or speak. (They) are most effective at filtering out larger aerosol particles and less effective at filtering out the smallest ones,” says Bryan Bzdek, research fellow at University of Bristol Aerosol Research Center, which summarizes the scientific mechanism behind mask use.
“This is conceptually similar to driving a car when there are a lot of insects around – the big ones tend to bump into the windshield, while the small ones follow the airflow around the car,” he said.
Outside parts of Southeast Asia, where mask wearing had become commonplace after the SARS outbreak in 2002, few countries were used to covering their faces in public. But the unique shock of the Covid-19 eruption meant that behavior was rapidly changing, experts say.
“Behavioral scientists and policy makers were quite surprised at how quickly people adopted masks when they were first required,” Williams said.
“The biggest development in mask perceptions of the pandemic has generally been an acceptance that they protect others just as much, if not more, than the wearer,” he added.
“The exact benefits in terms of preventative cases and saved lives are still being investigated – but even marginal gains are worthwhile when masks are relatively inexpensive interventions, as they are much easier for us than things like taking distance or isolating.”
But now, despite the fact that scientific research on face masks is only expanding, countries are moving in different directions.
But he has faced obstacles from several states. Most recently, Biden’s Department of Education has become involved in a fight with the Florida Education Department after it decided to reduce funding to certain school districts to require people to wear masks.
In Europe, mask mandates have become the norm, although several countries saw their Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations come under control, with stricter rules for unvaccinated people visiting indoor spaces such as restaurants and bars.
But, despite a stubborn rise in cases since the summer, England no longer requires people to cover their faces anywhere – with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaving it to “personal choice”.
The psychology behind masks
Experts say that whether most people will wear masks depends largely on the rules that are in place.
“The biggest single influence across all causes of wearing a face mask seems to be the law,” said Ivo Vlaev, professor of behavioral science at the University of Warwick. He cited data from Imperial College London’s Covid Behavior Tracker, the largest rolling study of the societal impact of Covid-19 in the world.
“(To demand) a behavior helps send the signal that it is important,” Williams added. “Wearing masks is a behavior that is really influenced by social norms – or peer pressure – and so in an environment where masks are no longer mandated, this can influence others not to wear theirs.”
However, when the public is based on the law, vague messages can be costly.
Williams said he was initially “surprised” at how quickly people stopped wearing masks in the UK in recent months. “It’s really down to the mixed messages that a lot of people feel the government has passed on,” he added.
“Many countries in Europe have had a more consistent policy on masks, and that makes it more of a habit over time.”
The UK government is now facing a test as it tries to encourage mask wearing again, without the support of a law, as cases arise in the time leading up to winter.
Britain’s health minister, Sajid Javid, recently urged people to wear masks in certain situations to avoid future restrictions. But he was forced to admit that it was “fair” by the public to wonder why they are now being urged to do so when lawmakers hours earlier had appeared in the House of Commons without face covering.
Experts doubt whether such a guide will weigh as much as it did during earlier stages of the pandemic.
“As the number of mask wearers decreases, so does the ability of authorities to enforce mask mandates,” said Robert Dingwall, professor of social sciences at Nottingham Trent University.
It is this mindset that has led most EU countries to introduce longer, and sometimes stricter, masking measures.
“People want to learn a new behavior – to wear masks – before they ‘unlearn it’ and then have to learn it again,” Williams said. “This can prove challenging – many people may have gotten used to life without masks.”