Association Between Actual and Perceived U.S. COVID-19 Policies and Preventive Behavior
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BACKGROUND: COVID-19 related policies in the USA can be confusing: some states, but not others, implemented mask mandates mid-pandemic, and states reopened their economies to different levels with different timelines after initial shutdowns. PURPOSE: The current research asks: How well does the public's perception of such policies align with actual policies, and how well do actual versus perceived policies predict the public's mask-wearing and social distancing behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic? METHODS: We conducted a preregistered cross-sectional study among 1,073 online participants who were representative of the U.S. population on age, gender, and education on Monday-Tuesday, July 20-21, 2020. We asked participants which locations they visited in the past weekend, and their mask-wearing and social distancing behaviors at each location. We also measured participants' beliefs about their state's policies on mask mandate and business opening and obtained objective measures of these policies from publicly available data. RESULTS: Perception about the existence of mask mandate was 91% accurate in states with a mask mandate but only 46% accurate in states without one. Perception of state reopening level did not correlate with policy. It was the perceived but not actual state mask mandate that positively predicted both mask-wearing and social distancing, controlling for state COVID-19 cases, demographic factors, and participants' numeracy and COVID-19 history. CONCLUSIONS: The public's perception of state-level mask mandates erred on the side of assuming there is one. Perception of reopening is almost completely inaccurate. Paradoxically, public perception that a mask mandate exists predicts preventive behaviors better than actual mandates.