By Ronald Fraser
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s recent coronavirus-related executive order directs all New Yorkers, when in a public place and not maintaining appropriate social distancing, to cover their noses and mouths with a mask or cloth face covering.
By imposing on New York citizens a radically new mode of public behavior – an innovative way for people to interact with one another – the governor has staged a grand, four-part drama running through May 15.
To get some idea how this statewide drama might play out among adults as it draws in 15 million New York actors, let’s consult the popular diffusion of innovation model created by Everett Rogers, the eminent communication theorist. Once a new idea is introduced – the wearing of a face cover, for example – the model will help us track its adoption over time.
Early adopters: Rogers predicts the drama’s first act will involve about 3 million New Yorkers who will eagerly adopt the new idea. Their acceptance of face coverings demonstrates a high degree of opinion leadership. Early adopters are respected by their peers for their discrete use of a new idea. Their adoption is seen as a subjective evaluation that decreases uncertainty other citizens may be experiencing.
Early majority: Next, enter the early majority, about 4.5 million New Yorkers. They adopt the new idea slightly ahead of late adopters. Rogers writes, “The early majority’s unique position between the very early and relatively late to adopt makes them an important link in the diffusion process. They provide interconnectedness in the system’s network.”
Late majority: Another 4.5 four million New Yorkers – the more skeptical and cautious variety – adopt face coverings only in response to increasing pressure from others. They wait until the new idea has already been widely adopted and its utility has been established.
Laggards: As this drama draws to a close, the citizens most reluctant to don face coverings will trickle in. They are focused on the past and value how things have been done traditionally. Their adoption occurs long after the new idea has been shown to be overwhelmingly worthwhile.
The use of face coverings in New York State is sure to test our social cohesion. Unlike a law, the executive order – more akin to a polite request – does not stipulate how the face covering decree will be enforced or the penalty for ignoring the directive.
Widespread compliance will more likely depend on a general willingness among citizens to trade off the inconvenience of wearing a face cover with concern for the well being of their neighbors.
As the wearing of face covers spreads and is adopted throughout the state, peer pressure will continue to build until finally even the laggards will relent and accept their assigned part in this unique civic drama.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., is a public policy researcher and writer who lives in the Buffalo area.