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California COVID-19 masks: Who is following the rules?

To reduce the spread of the coronavirus, all Californians are required to wear a mask in crowded outdoor spaces. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor under an order issued in June by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Enforcement has been lax, and many people have resisted. It’s unknown how widely the public adheres to the rule, so The Times decided to find out.

What we did

Last month, over the course of a week, our reporters observed passersby in three locations in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Each person’s compliance with the mask order was classified into one of these three categories:

Correct

Wearing a mask that covers both the nose and mouth.

Incorrect

Wearing a mask that fails to cover both the nose and mouth.

No mask

Not wearing a mask at all.

We visited a trendy Venice shopping district, Main Street in Huntington Beach, and a leafy public park in north Long Beach. We monitored each location six times between July 23 and July 28, tracking a total of 3,026 passersby in two-hour shifts.

While our results are limited to a small selection of locations in the populous and diverse region of Southern California, it is modeled on studies conducted by academics to offer a more scientific answer to the question of how residents are responding to the pandemic. Here’s what we found.

Most people don’t follow the rules

Only 42% of the people we tracked were wearing masks correctly, 10% were wearing masks incorrectly and 47% were not wearing masks at all.

These results are in contrast with recent polls where, when asked by researchers, large majorities said that they wear masks in public always or very often. A recent survey by USC found that most Americans say they believe mask-wearing is important and can slow the spread of the virus. Unlike The Times, those studies did not directly observe the behavior of people in public, but instead were limited to asking questions online and over the telephone.

More masks in L.A. than O.C.

We found different results at different locations. In Venice, nearly 60% of people were wearing a mask correctly. Forty miles south in Huntington Beach, less than 30% of people were wearing a mask. Long Beach fell in between, with 40% of people wearing a mask.

The Abbot Kinney area of Venice is an upscale shopping district on the liberal Westside of Los Angeles, an area where local leaders were quick to embrace the lockdown. At the corner of California Avenue and Abbot Kinney Boulevard, we counted 1,183 people and found that 58% were observing the law and wearing their masks correctly. Another 12% were wearing masks incorrectly, while 30% were not wearing a mask at all.

Huntington Beach

Main Street

Main Street in Huntington Beach is a buzzing hub of beachside activity in Orange County, an area where protesters have vigorously challenged mask orders and other restrictions. At the corner of Main Street and Orange Avenue, two blocks from the beach, we counted 1,118 people and found that 64% were not wearing a mask. Only 28% were wearing a mask correctly and 9% had a mask on that was not covering both their nose and mouth.

Houghton Park is a family-friendly gathering place near where Long Beach’s northern border meets Compton in L.A. County’s densely populated Southeast region. That area has become the epicenter for the resurgence of the coronavirus, with infections skyrocketing in working-class Latino communities. We counted 725 people. Of those, a narrow majority, 51%, were not wearing a mask. In contrast, 40% of people were wearing a mask correctly, and 9% were wearing a mask, but incorrectly.

Women wear masks more frequently

In all three locations, women were more likely to be wearing masks than men. Overall, 50% of those we perceived to be women were wearing masks correctly compared to 37% of men.

Venice

Venice was the only location where a majority of men were wearing masks correctly.

Huntington Beach

The gap between men and women was also found in Huntington Beach, though fewer people wore masks overall.

Long Beach

The biggest gap between men and women was found in Long Beach.

Keep in mind

This is simply one study of a small number of locations. It is not a comprehensive representation of the general public. It only captured the behavior of individuals as they passed by our reporters, and therefore it does not capture cases where people take their mask on and off over a period of time. Our results almost certainly contain some errors in observation and data entry. Since our reporters were observing people in real time and not individually speaking to all of our subjects, it is also possible that we misclassified the gender expression of some individuals.


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