The vaccination rollout is important, but mandatory mask requirements still take the cake. Here’s a data update on where things stand:
The United States is making progress in vaccine distribution! At the time of writing, it’s been reported that about 43% of Americans have received at least one shot and nearly one in three are fully vaccinated. This is long-awaited positive progress for museums and performing arts organizations, which have observed significant drops in attendance since the pandemic began.
Though 2021 likely won’t see attendance fully recover to 2019 levels, visitation is projected to continue improving as vaccinations keep rolling out. This is great news! But feeling safe right now isn’t only about the vaccine, according to cultural organization-goers in the United States.
As many know, IMPACTS Experience has been tracking what people say will make them feel comfortable visiting cultural entities for over a year. Especially given the CDC’s new guidelines released yesterday for fully-vaccinated individuals, It’s time for an update on where things stand. (And, of course, we will continue to watch as people react to these changes.)
To collect this data, we asked people, “What would make you feel safe and comfortable visiting a(n) [insert organization type] again?” First, we gathered people’s answers to this question using a process called lexical analysis, which allows us to broadly categorize responses from people using their own words. The technologies that enable this process help to minimize the risks of unintentional biases that occur when facilitators translate or summarize a respondent’s statements. These categorized responses are then used to populate the response range of a multiple-choice question. In other words, the options came directly from survey respondents; we did not internally brainstorm these options and present them in a survey based on our best guesses of what people would say.
What people say will make them feel safe visiting exhibit-based organizations is shown in orange (museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, historic sites, botanic gardens, etc.), with a sample of 3,117 US adults. What people say will make them feel safe visiting performance-based organizations is shown in blue (theaters, symphonies, ballets, etc.), with a sample of 1,775 US adults. The data is pulled for the end of the first quarter of this year.
You’ll notice something clearly and immediately: Masks are still important.
In fact, masks are still very important.
However, the difference between mandatory masking and the availability of the coronavirus vaccine is very slight – so much so that it’s probably best to consider these safety factors 1A and 1B as opposed to first and second. Indeed, as the vaccination campaign continues to increase its reach and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evolve their recommendations concerning masking for fully vaccinated people, we’ll likely continue to contemplate these factors in tandem.
We’ll dive a bit deeper into the data on masks in a moment. For now, let’s take a look at some other key items on this list.
- Availability of coronavirus vaccine: This has been at or near the top of the list all through the pandemic. It means that people will feel most comfortable visiting museums and performing arts organizations again when most people are vaccinated, potential visitors themselves are vaccinated, and herd immunity is achieved (or close to it). Again, as the vaccination campaign expands, it is reasonable to expect vaccinations to remain at or near the top of the safety factors that will help people feel safe returning to cultural activities.
- Ability to be outside: The ability to be outdoors was stated as a priority by over half of potential visitors to both organization types. This may be good timing for the vaccination rollout as warmer weather months approach in the northern states. There may also be an added opportunity to move some programming outdoors as things start to recover.
- Seeing others visit: This means people will feel comfortable visiting when they see others visiting, or when going to the museum is a more normalized behavior again. This is a notably lesser factor for performing arts organizations, as more people attending means more people in the theater space, and the sight of more people may feel risky rather than enticing.
- Limits on crowds and exclusive hours for vulnerable populations: These percentages are elevated for performing arts organizations, for which there is a perception that the experience may involve less freedom of movement and some number of people in a shared space.
- Organizations choosing to reopen: There is a percentage of people for whom an organization’s very decision to be open is an indicator of a safe experience. Cultural organizations are trusted, and a notable percentage of people (around 20%) believe that an entity wouldn’t reopen if it weren’t sure that the experience was safe.
How important are mandatory mask requirements in the US right now?
Still pretty dang important, as it turns out. Nearly 80% of potential visitors in the United States say mandatory face coverings will make them feel safer. That means that roughly 20% of potential visitors don’t significantly value masks as a level of personal protection against the coronavirus, are somewhat ambivalent about organizations or governments mandating masks, or actively oppose their usage. (No, not all 20% are necessarily actively opposed to masks.)
Let’s take a deeper look.
The findings in the chart below don’t only include cultural organizations. Instead, they contemplate likely visitors planning to take part in any visitor-serving enterprise experience in the next three months, from sporting events to theme parks, concerts, and so on. We’ve included the broadest category of enterprise because it helps us understand the safety factors motivating any decision to attend a visitor-serving organization.
We asked: “On a scale of 1-10 where a response of ‘1’ indicates that face coverings are ‘not at all essential, and a response of ’10’ indicates that face coverings are ‘absolutely essential and prerequisite’ to visiting an organization, how essential is requiring mandatory face coverings for all staff members, volunteers, and guests in your decision to visit an organization?”
A”10″ is an absolutely essential nonstarter. No mask requirement, no visit. These people aren’t going to go to places if masks aren’t required there. The higher the rating, the more make-or-break masks are to people in terms of an attendance decision.
A response of “1” means masks are a non-factor (not necessarily that requiring them loses a visit). There may be some people who say they won’t go if there’s a mask requirement, but a response of “1” is not always a refusal to go if masks are required. Instead, it more frequently means that not mandating masks will not affect the visitation decision.
Most potential visitors lean toward masks being “absolutely essential,” despite variance by region. Nationally (and including states not shown here), those who plan to attend visitor-serving entities say that mandatory masks are essential at a value of 7.9 on a 10.0 scale. On the whole, people who plan to visit any cultural organization in the next three months consider face coverings as essential to their safety. (Again, could these attitudes evolve as vaccinations increase and warmer weather encourages outdoor activities? Yes! However, the data indicates that for those people surveyed during Q1 2021, masking remained a very important safety factor influencing their decisions to reengage with cultural organizations.)
You’ll also note that in several states and regions in the United States, the necessity of mask mandates has increased since the summertime. Why show you June and July of 2020 as comparators? Because that’s around the time that perceptions were changing quickly surrounding masks. As you can see, the findings have remained at a similar or increased rate since then.
Not requiring masks makes a meaningful number of people in every region uncomfortable. And here’s the kicker: Research suggests that not requiring masks will have a much greater negative impact on attendance than requiring them for the vast majority of organizations.
Timing and perspective matter… a lot. For a significant period of Q1 2021, the US vaccination campaign was in its relative infancy and masking remained a primary defense against the spread of coronavirus – particularly for people not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. Even as vaccination rates increase, masking remains one of the few visible public health measures that can help a visitor gain comfort with his or her setting. One person can’t tell if another has been vaccinated, but they can see if they are wearing a mask.
It’s also worth noting that while there is some variance of opinion concerning the need for public masking, this variance is slight among the highest-propensity visitors to cultural organizations. In other words, while a sample of average US adults thinking about going to a baseball game or music festival might yield a range of opinions concerning masking, a similar sample of high-propensity visitors to cultural organizations indicates a greater unanimity of belief about the appropriateness of masks. And this makes sense: The typical cultural visitor is older and thus perhaps more susceptible to the harshest consequences of the virus. Likewise, the belief that mask mandates are “absolutely essential” correlates with educational attainment, and likely visitors to cultural organizations tend to be an educated bunch. (The average adult visitor to cultural organizations in the US has graduated high school and has two years of college or a professional degree. Members are a particularly critical group to engage in our pandemic-impacted time, and members tend to have a bachelor’s degree or greater, on average.)
Not only that, the top issue contributing to onsite dissatisfaction for cultural organizations is still staff members neglecting to enforce mask mandates and social distancing rules. The safety of visitors is now identified as a primary role for staff members according to guests. It’s in our best interests to take that expectation seriously.
We at IMPACTS Experience expect that perceptions related to safety protocols will continue to evolve over time, and we’ll be watching and reporting. For now, the data recommends we don’t take off those masks just yet (or place them below your noses, either)!
Better days of higher attendance may be on the horizon, but not if potential visitors are unable to trust we’ll provide a safe environment.
IMPACTS Experience provides data specific to organizations or markets through workshops, keynote presentations, webinars, and data services such as pricing recommendations, market potential analyses, concept testing, and Awareness, Attitude, and Usage studies. Learn more.
We publish new national data and analysis every other Wednesday. Don’t want to miss an update? Subscribe here to get the most recent data and analysis in your inbox.