Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, it would stand to reason that there are fewer anti-maskers in the middle of a major COVID-19 spike. That roughly matches how the public typically responds to communicable diseases, says Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The closer an outbreak gets to someone’s neighborhood, “the more likely someone is impacted by it, and the more likely it changes [the person’s] risk perception,” she told me. It was probably easier, during Iowa’s first two surges, for people who weren’t meat-packing workers or students to feel disconnected from the disease. But then Iowans read the warnings in news articles, heard the pleas of local health-care providers on TV, and saw their neighbors and loved ones become seriously ill. Those who perceive a higher risk to their personal safety will be much more likely to wear a mask or stay home.
Read: What do you tell someone who still won’t stay home?
Getting sick yourself can significantly change your risk calculus, too. Bo Schnurr, a 49-year-old investment adviser and high-school volleyball coach in Algona, never wore a mask last year, unless she was on the court coaching. Then, in October, she tested positive for COVID-19 and spent six days in the hospital. For weeks after she was discharged, Schnurr carried around a portable oxygen tank. Doctors say her lungs are still inflamed, and some days she still feels too tired and achy to get out of bed. Now Schnurr takes precautions, even if she may have immunity. “I’m still wearing a mask for the reason that I would never wish this on anybody,” she told me. Schnurr hopes that other Americans will choose to wear masks in public, but she says she understands why many still don’t. “Some people have to experience it on their own to actually change how they believe things,” she said.
Shifting pandemic politics likely played a role in Iowans’ perception of risk. People look to political leaders and other community figures with whom they share values to dictate how they should respond to crises. And when leaders in Iowa downplayed the virus in the middle of a contentious election year—suggesting that the COVID-19 death toll was artificially inflated, not masking up in public—many Iowans followed suit.
Ironically, though, Reynolds’s early inaction on the pandemic—when she largely kept the state open—may have helped her later decision to issue new restrictions seem more meaningful to residents, David Ropeik, a risk-communication consultant, told me. “The fact that she was hesitant at first made the fact that she was all in later more trustworthy”—and could have pushed some Iowans to take the virus more seriously, he said.
That seriousness served Iowa well this winter. But as the state’s daily case numbers stay stable—and the COVID-19 vaccines produce a new sense of security—Iowans could become complacent. Already, Reynolds has begun to do away with earlier pandemic restrictions. Yesterday, she lifted the state’s mask mandate, effective tomorrow, and removed social-distancing restrictions in businesses and limits on crowd sizes at sporting events. She signed legislation requiring public schools to offer a 100 percent in-person learning option by mid-February. The state’s vaccine rollout has been slower than anticipated. And just this week, health officials announced new cause for alarm: The U.K. variant—a much more contagious strain of the coronavirus—has made it to Iowa.