As more businesses in the area are requiring masks to shop, a group of UND students and faculty are collecting data to see how often Grand Forks residents are wearing face coverings at local grocery stores.

The study, which involves students and faculty in UND’s public health education program and the social work program, aims to better understand how many people in Grand Forks are wearing face coverings and how public health messaging can be formed around them.

“We're not finding any other community that's doing any kind of count like this,” said Bret Weber, a Grand Forks City Council member who is also an associate professor of social work at UND. “Everybody's talking about masks and everybody has anecdotal estimates, but nobody's going out there scientifically.”

The study emerged from the Mayor’s Economic Recovery Group under former Mayor Mike Brown’s tenure, according to Weber, who said the study is particularly important as students arrive on campus next month.

“We've got thousands of disease vectors returning to Grand Forks here in about a month,” Weber said. “We want them to come back to a safe community. And we want the larger community to be safe from all of the students returning in August.”

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At various hours throughout the days and at the various Hugo’s locations in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, students collect observations of people walking into the store while parked in their vehicles, noting their approximate age, gender and whether they are wearing a face mask and if it is on correctly, said Gabby Wavra, a graduate student involved in the study. The students also try to determine what type of face covering the person is wearing, whether it is a cloth covering or some sort of industrial or medical mask.

Stephanie Scallon, a graduate student involved with the study, said students have even picked up on mask trends and notice when a new type of mask becomes popular.

“It's just so interesting. I think I'm going to be doing like, action research on all these little nuanced data, but also I'm looking up a sewing tutorial on YouTube,” Scallon laughed.

Another part of the study involves an anonymous survey that people can fill out about why they choose to wear a mask or not, as well as other information. Another future aspect of the study will include interviews.

Data is being collected through at least August. Early data of the first four weeks of observations and surveys is being processed.

Anecdotally, Tanis Walch, associate professor in the education, health and behavior studies program, said they are seeing differences based on the time of day, the store and the age of the person.

Scallon said she’s excited to get all of the analyzed data and survey responses back from the public so she and others can understand why people decide to wear or not wear a mask.

“I’m really just really excited to see the genuine response from our community so that we can tailor our messaging in a more appropriate way instead of just guessing,” she said.

In addition to learning about mask wearing, the study is also an opportunity for students to do a meaningful internship, Scallon said.

Lisa Swanson, communications director for Hugo's Family Marketplace, said in an email that Hugo’s was approached by the city of Grand Forks and Weber about the study.

“We understand that face coverings are an important part of keeping our community safe and helping to slow the spread of this virus,” she wrote. “Since March, all of our team members have been required to wear face coverings, and we strongly request that our customers wear them as well, so partnering on this study made perfect sense to us.”

Swanson said Hugo’s looks forward to seeing the results of the study.

“We are hoping this is one way to encourage more people to wear face coverings to protect others,” she said.

On Monday, July 20, Hugo’s announced that all customers would be required to wear masks to shop in the store beginning July 29.

Face coverings

There was some initial confusion over face coverings and whether it was beneficial for everyone to wear a mask, Walch said science is “strong” and shows that wearing a mask is beneficial and important.

“Unfortunately, mask wearing and everything along with this pandemic has kind of been politicized,” Walch said.

Walch noted this pandemic has a lot of unknowns and, throughout it, health officials and the public have learned ways to limit the spread.

“It's going to evolve; mistakes are going to be made,” she said. “But hopefully, the mistakes are, ‘Oh, we've been overcautious. We've saved lives.’ If we're under cautious, ‘Oh, no, we made a mistake. And now people are dying and getting sick and getting ill.’”

Mask wearing has been a part of that. Walch said mask wearing is about showing respect for others and to support friends and family who may be immuno-compromised.

While messaging about face coverings is important, Scallon said visual cues from community leaders can have a big impact on people feeling comfortable wearing face coverings.

“I think visual cues and seeing our leaders lead by action right now is so incredibly important,” she said.

Another important aspect is creating a social norm around face coverings, Ashley Evenson, with UND’s master of public health program, said.

“Seeing other people do it goes a really long way,” she said. “You can kind of hit people with messaging and it's going to reach certain parts of the population, depending on their attitudes, their beliefs, but I think the social norming and seeing other people do it … is one of the biggest parts.”

Seeing corporations, such as Walmart, Best Buy and Target, all of which are beginning to institute mask requirements in the coming weeks, is also a good step, Walch said. She acknowledged wearing a mask can be hard and uncomfortable for some people, but it helps protect others.