Feb. 8, 2021

To mask or not to mask, that is the question — and also the law

Partnership with City of Calgary one of 6 projects to receive federal funding for social sciences and humanities research

Since Aug. 1, 2020, Calgarians have been required to wear face masks in indoor public spaces. When announcing the face coverings bylaw, Mayor Naheed Nenshi stated that the decision wasn’t made on “a whim” — council put the bylaw in place “on the basis of very good medical and scientific advice.”

It’s been six months since the bylaw went into place, and in a recent survey, 93 per cent of Calgarians said they are wearing face masks as required. On the other hand, Calgary has seen a rise in anti-mask rallies over the last few months, some including upward of 250 people. 

What explains this difference of opinion? A team of researchers led by Dr. Katrina Milaney, PhD, is working with The City of Calgary to find out. 

“We are asking, ‘What are the behaviours or reasons that are driving that decision to not wear a mask?’” says Milaney, associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine. The research team will work with The City of Calgary to conduct a city-wide survey and series of interviews to answer that question.

It’s important for public safety in terms of reducing spread of the virus, but also because of the angst that it causes Calgarians and business owners, and the pressure that it puts on city officials. 

Milaney has been awarded SSHRC Partnership Engage COVID-19 Special Initiative funding to pursue this research. The project is one of three UCalgary projects to receive funding under the COVID-19 program, along with two standard Partnership Engage grants. 

“Dr. Milaney’s project exemplifies the integral role that academic research can play in our communities when we collaborate,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “The partnerships formed through the five funded projects have tremendous potential to deepen our integration in the community and make a positive impact on Canadians, and we are grateful for SSHRC’s support.”

City committed to objective, fact-based decisions 

The project emerged from questions asked of Milaney and the COVID-19 Taskforce by The City of Calgary about mask use, and how to best respond to those not complying with the bylaw. “We will be able to use the data to develop more effective communications to reach these individuals and groups about the value and importance of mask wearing as a means of reducing COVID-19 cases in our community,” says Krista Ring, manager of web, research and projects at The City of Calgary. 

“It is more important than ever to make objective and fact-based decisions in government. Being able to accurately reflect back citizen perspectives to our City administration, elected officials, and Calgary’s citizens creates transparency and accountability as well as building trust.”

Based on research that has already been done in this area, Milaney predicts that there are two notable reasons they will hear for not wearing masks. 

Some people are claiming that there is a lot of confusion about the efficacy of masks, and the pandemic itself.

“If people are confused about what to do, or if the messaging is mixed or unclear, it can create trust issues between citizens and decision-makers,” says Milaney. Citizens questioning the validity of the information they receive can lead to confusion, which could result in people not wearing masks.

The second is the human rights argument, which Milaney is hoping to find participants to interview about. “There are lots of rules we have to follow and things that we have to do as citizens to make sure that we’re safe, and that our neighbours and communities are safe,” she says. “I’m curious about why people are landing on this idea of a mask as a thing that they’re resistant to.”

The survey team of Milaney, Dr. John Ellard, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, and researchers from W21C are hoping to receive at least 500 responses to the online survey, and interview people of all races, genders, ages and backgrounds. Calgarians will begin to see advertisements for the survey soon.

Recipients of SSHRC Partnership Engage COVID-19 special grants:

  • Dr. David Nicholas, PhD (Faculty of Social Work): Older Adults and Frailty: Exploring the Psychosocial and Health Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic
  • Dr. Meghan McDonough, PhD (Faculty of Kinesiology): COVID-19: Understanding Challenges to Supporting Older Adults' Participation in Physical Activities in the Wake of COVID-19
  • Dr. Katrina Milaney, PhD (Cumming School of Medicine): Understanding Behaviours During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Examining Who is Wearing Masks, Who is Not and Why

Recipients of SSHRC Partnership Engage grants:

  • Dr. Heather Boynton, PhD (Faculty of Social Work): Evaluating Organizational Cultural Competence Through Participatory Action
  • Dr. Jack Lucas, PhD (Faculty of Arts): Informing the Electorate: Public Opinion and Local Media for the Calgary Municipal Election     

Katrina Milaney is an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute at the CSM.

The group of grant recipients represents the breadth and depth of the research and expertise at the University of Calgary, representing a number of the Institutes within the Cumming School of Medicine, including the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, the Arnie Charbonneau Cancer Institute, The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), the HBI and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Urban Alliance is a strategic partnership between The City of Calgary and University of Calgary to promote the seamless transfer of cutting-edge research between The City and the university, for the benefit of all our communities.