Consumer spending was found to have increased by 5 percent on average in communities that had face mask mandates, according to a new study conducted by the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.
The researchers also discovered that the economic benefits were highest among non-essential businesses, including those in the retail and entertainment industries like restaurants and bars, which were the hardest hit in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“The findings exceeded our expectations and show that we can have a strong economy with strong, commonsense public-health measures,” the study’s co-author Raphael Thomadsen, a professor of marketing, said in a news release. “Mask mandates are a win-win.”
The study tapped into cellphone location data to track the degree of social distancing in nearly every county in the United States and later compared that information with coronavirus infection and consumer spending rates.
What the researchers were able to conclude was that social distancing had a larger impact on minimizing coronavirus spread than mask-wearing. However, social distancing was seen to reduce consumer spending, while mask mandates had the opposite effect.
“Preventive measures such as social distancing and facial masks should be considered as pro-business,” the study’s co-author Song Yao, an associate professor of marketing, said in a release.
“When people feel safer to spend, or more importantly when the pandemic is kept at bay, the economy is more likely to have a quick recovery. Not to mention the lives that will be saved.”
The data also pointed toward the fact that political affiliation had a significant impact on whether people engaged in social distancing. Counties that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 were less likely to adhere to social-distancing measures than those that voted for Hillary Clinton.
“If the entire country had followed low levels of social distancing seen in Trump-supporting areas, we estimate there would have been 83,000 more American deaths from COVID to date, which represents a 36 percent increase over the current death count of 225,000 Americans,” Thomadsen said.
He added that the United States would have recovered only $55.4 billion, or roughly 9 percent, had all counties remained as open as the most pro-Trump areas.
“The calls to open up the economy come with huge costs of COVID spread and only modest benefits of increased economic activity,” Thomadsen said.
“Opening the economy before getting the virus under control only makes sense if you put a very low value on life.”
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.