September 19, 2021

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To mask or not to mask? That is the question businesses will need to answer

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In a somewhat unexpected move, the CDC announced it is safe for individuals fully inoculated against COVID-19 to ditch their masks in most settings.

And while some people eagerly welcomed the news, others were less keen and discussed the uncertainties accompanying such an announcement. Above all, the change in mask policy poses a challenging question for a lot of businesses: to mask up or not to mask up? While retailers like Costco and Trader Joe’s are trusting shoppers to comply with the CDC’s terms, customers and employees are concerned people will lie about their vaccination status. Using Sprout Social’s Advanced Listening, we analyzed over 208,000 messages across Twitter from April 24 to May 26, 2021, to learn more about how businesses and consumers are responding to the latest mask guidelines.

Businesses look for guidance in a post-mask world

Masks have been a part of the online conversation ever since the world first went into lockdown. That conversation volume spiked on May 14, when the director of the CDC went on Good Morning America to announce the new mask guidelines. By May 15, retailers like Publix and Starbucks updated their store policies to reflect the federal decision.

Making matters more complicated, different states are issuing their own guidance to supplement the CDC’s announcement. In Oregon, fully inoculated individuals will need to show proof of vaccination in order to enter a business without a mask.

Meanwhile, officials in California have asked everyone to continue wearing masks until businesses and workers have had time to prepare for the CDC’s updated guidelines.

The CDC’s announcement was met with conflicting emotions, with Tweets about masks registering as mostly negative (45% negative, 32% positive, 23% neutral). The suddenness of the announcement and questions surrounding state guidelines have also led to confusion, with some businesses unsure of which recommendations to follow.

Some employees say they feel anxious seeing how quickly shoppers are willing to walk around mask free.

It’s also led to feelings of anger and frustration, especially when employees feel like they’re not able to ask store-goers to mask up to ensure the safety of workers who aren’t yet vaccinated. Of the 19,383 Tweets mentioning employees and workers, 56% of those messages were negative while 32% were positive and 12% neutral.

To help protect workers, businesses should clearly communicate what their in-store policies are on social to keep customers informed of the latest guidelines. And once those policies are in place, there needs to be consensus across every location to abide by those rules and ensure they are consistently enforced.

A hot button issue among consumers

To the surprise of no one, almost everyone online had an opinion about the CDC’s decision to lift mask restrictions. Some took the news as an opportunity to flaunt the choice to not wear a mask, even if it comes at the expense of making others around them uncomfortable.

At the same time, plenty of people say they’ll continue to mask up in stores until everyone has received a vaccine.

Others expressed a sense of relief at seeing shoppers continuing to wear masks in spite of the policy changes.

The tension between anti-maskers and mask-wearers seems to be magnified at grocery stores, which received 14,992 mentions. Tweets mentioning grocery or grocery stores saw a bump in traffic on May 21, as people debated whether or not masks should be required indoors.

Ready or not, (some) masks are coming off

The call for more lenient mask requirements will only grow stronger as more people across the country get vaccinated. Now is the time for businesses to figure out what in-store policies will look like and ensure those policies are consistently enforced.

For stores that still aren’t sure what to do, consider listening to your customers and employees to get a better sense of what decisions will make everyone feel comfortable and safe. In addition to following state and local guidelines, it’s important you also take into account feedback from the people who will physically be in your stores. Once your in-store policies are in place, proactively communicate those changes to your audience and establish a social customer support plan to ensure timely, consistent responses to any questions fielded over social media.

As you prepare your business for this next stage in the pandemic, remember to keep a pulse on your local community’s expectations. To learn more about what you need for a post-COVID world, check out this article on how tools like social listening can help keep your business on top of the rapidly changing mask guidelines.

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