As the state continues to reopen, WGBH News wanted to get a sense of whether Massachusetts residents are continuing to heed the state mandate on face coverings.
We sent five reporters to five different locations. Each spent an hour observing passersby, talking with people about masks, and counting the number of people they saw, noting whether or not they were wearing masks.
Newton Center | Craig Lemoult
They say that old habits die hard. But forming new ones isn’t exactly a breeze, either. Craig Lemoult learned as much when he spotted his first unmasked resident, heading toward a pharmacy in Newton Center. As she approached the entrance she stopped cold, reversed course, and returned to her car. Lemoult caught up with her there.
"I forgot my mask, so I headed back to the car," said Newton resident Rachel Geller. "There’s definitely times I leave the house or [am] about to enter a place of business and I realize, 'Oh, I need a mask.' I’ll get used to it right in time for the vaccine."
Of the 75 people Lemoult counted in Newton Center, he said, 75 percent were fully masked. Seven others had masks that were pulled down or to the side — in most cases because they were eating ice cream. He also counted a dozen people who wore no visible face covering of any kind.
"One thing I did notice is that people who are wearing masks are very happy to talk with me about their decision to wear a mask," said Lemoult. "But almost universally, people who are not wearing masks do not want to talk about that decision."
Nauset Light Beach, Cape Cod National Seashore, Eastham | Bob Seay
A reticence to talk about not wearing a mask was something Bob Seay also found over the weekend on the Cape. He had this exchange with a couple who declined to identify themselves.
SEAY: Excuse me, I’m doing a story on masks at the beach. I’d just like to know why you’re not wearing a mask?
WOMAN: No comment.
MAN: Yeah, no comment. Thank you though.
Seay found masks were rare among the 200 or so people he observed on the beach itself. But he also noted near universal adherence to social distancing rules — in this case, people or small groups mainting a distance of at least 12 feet.
But it was along the narrow pathway to the beach that Seay spent most of his time observing. He caught up with Park Ranger Mark Weber there, and had this exchange.
SEAY: Now as people are walking down the path, they’re obviously closer than 6 feet together, so presumably would be advised to wear a mask.
WEBBER: They are advised to wear a mask, yes.
SEAY: And what has your observation been?
WEBBER: That most do not wear a mask.
That tracks with what Seay saw, as well, to the dismay of some mask wearers, like Connecticut resident Carol Stevens, who was heading to the beach with her husband and young son.
SEAY: Most people, I counted them, most people are not wearing masks,
STEVENS: I know, that’s a shame.
SEAY: So I talked to the ranger, he said it’s not required. It’s advised, but that it should be common sense.
STEVENS: I think we’re under the impression that not that many people have common sense, unfortunately.
Foxboro | Marilyn Schairer
If we accept that mask wearing is indeed common sense, then common sense ruled supreme in Foxboro, where Marylin Schairer spent time at a shopping center that included a gym and a nail salon.
Schairer found that all but three of the nearly 100 people she observed were wearing masks. Still, when Schairer scratched the surface a little, she learned that not all of these mask wearers don those masks all of the time.
"I feel it helps inside, but I work outside a lot and I don’t like to wear it, just 'cause it’s really hot out," said Walpole resident Joe Kelly. "I mean, inside, it’s good. But on the outside, I never wear it."
"To go in a store, I mean, why not. I think it’s the right thing to do right now," said Foxboro resident Ines Arismendi. "[But] it’s not comfortable. I don’t run with it. I don’t bike with it."
Porter Square, Cambridge | Edgar B. Herwick III
Cyclists aplenty were among the nearly 300 people I counted in Cambridge’s Porter Square during one of our recent blazing-hot afternoons. Roughly 75 percent of the people I observed were wearing masks. The other 25 percent were roughly evenly split between people who had masks but had them pulled down, and people who appeared not to have any face covering at all. In many cases, the unmasked or improperly masked were maintining a safe social distance from others while doing things like talking on the phone or drinking water or coffee.
And while the majority of cyclists I counted did wear masks, of the people who did not appear to have any face covering at all, most were cyclists. I caught up with Somerville resident Kevin Hatcher, who was masked on his bike, at a stop light.
"If you caught me about 10 minutes before, I would have it off," Hatcher said, explaining that he does his best to manage his mask wearing while cycling.
"Generally, I’m all for masks. Like, I’ll wear it all the time. When I'm at traffic light, I defintely put it on. But it’s hard in this heat to keep it up when I’m really going hard. If I'm passing people or there's a large group, I'll pull it up again."
Among the bikers, walkers, T-riders and shoppers I saw in Porter Square, fewer than 10 people were what I would describe as truly unmasked — simply going about their business among other people.
Copley Square, Boston | Phillip Martin
Martin spent some time in a relatively quiet Copley Square where, he noted, "of the few passing through the Square, a majority have on masks — and some are even stylish."
But he said he did observe two friends from East Boston on the steps of the Boston Public Library who proved to be a study in contrast.
"I don't like to follow the law, I guess you could say," said a maskless James Durago. "I mean, I do wear a mask when I really have to, like if I'm on the bus or something. But other than that, if I don't really have to wear it, then I'm not going to."
His companion, William Gano, was masked. "I'm wearing a mask because I just had endocarditis and was sick in the hospital for two months," he said. "I just really don't want any other reason to be in the hospital. I'm trying to prevent that and prevent other people from catching [COVID], just in case."
As for whether it concerened Gano that his friend was maskless?
"He can do what he wants. He's his own person," Gano said. "I don't feel like it's up to me to force him to do anything."
When Martin asked Durago how he would feel if his friend got sick, he replied, "I would feel awful, actually."
All told, WGBH News reporters observed hundreds of people across five locations. And while a significant majority were adhering to the state mandate to wearing face coverings where social distancing isn’t possible, compliance was also far from universal.