Widespread use of face coverings is a key public health strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, few studies have examined why Americans use or do not use face coverings, and little is known about the most effective messaging strategies. This study explored perceptions of face coverings, including motivations and barriers for use, and examined reactions to messaging promoting the use of face coverings. Six virtual focus groups were conducted with 34 North Carolina residents in July 2020. Participants reported high compliance with face covering recommendations but often did not wear them around family, friends, and colleagues. The most prevalent motivation for the use of face coverings was to protect or respect other people, including high-risk populations and individuals. Other motivators were self-protection, responsibility, desire for control, requirements, and expert advice. Barriers included physical and social discomfort, confusion or misinformation, low perceived susceptibility to COVID-19, and perceptions of identity and autonomy. Even among individuals who frequently wear face coverings, there are opportunities to improve compliance. Messaging should highlight how face coverings protect the wearer and others around them, normalize the use of face coverings in social settings, and emphasize requirements. Positive messages that focus on unity, personal experiences and the rationale for face coverings are recommended.
Keywords: COVID-19; face coverings; health behavior; health communication; masks.