Kiwis outside Auckland were much more blase about wearing masks when Covid-19 wasn't yet in their communities, despite being just as aware about health measures.
A top epidemiologist says just-released study findings highlight our complacency toward the virus - which he worried was on the rise, as fewer people were choosing to mask up in public now.
The study, which was carried out before widespread mask mandates, vaccines and Omicron and Delta's arrival in the country, compared differences in people's views toward health measures to help curb spread.
After surveying 1000 people in Auckland in September 2020, the researchers asked the same questions of 2000 residents in Hamilton, Rotorua, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch the following March.
"Because the incidence of Covid-19 infections was very low in areas outside Auckland, we wondered if people outside Auckland were not as keen as Aucklanders to wear face masks, self-isolate if unwell and get tested," study leader Dr Geoff Kaine said.
"If they were not as keen, then Covid-19 could spread very quickly and place pressure on our health system."
While they found people elsewhere in the country generally had similar beliefs as their Auckland counterparts about Covid-19 – as well as benefits of masking, testing and self-isolating – there were dramatic differences when it came to actually wearing masks.
"We were quite surprised to find that people outside Auckland were much less likely to wear face masks than people who lived in Auckland, even though they had the same pattern of beliefs and attitudes."
The likely explanation was that, away from Auckland, people didn't think they were at risk of infection, said Kaine, who carried out the study with Dr Vic Wright from the University of New England, Australia and Dr Suzie Greenhalgh, from Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research.
"People outside Auckland were ready to wear masks but were not bothering to do so because they thought there was very little chance they could catch Covid-19," Kaine said.
"The results serve as a reminder that, unfortunately, good intentions do not necessarily translate into action."
That was all the more important as New Zealand headed into its first winter with Covid-19 widespread in the community, along with a raft of other returning seasonal nasties.
"If people believe that catching Covid-19 will not seriously affect their health, then they will be much less likely to wear face masks."
Otago University epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker was concerned that, even with hundreds of hospitalisations being reported daily, hundreds more deaths likely this year, and the ever-present risk of Long Covid, Kiwis were becoming all too complacent about Covid-19.
While the study - released online ahead of peer review - captured a moment in time back in the era of elimination, Baker said it nonetheless offered useful insights.
"The first is that people basically behave differently if they see the risk is very proximate."
That was also illustrated by a February Ipsos poll which found that, as Omicron was beginning to take off, just 44 per cent of respondents felt comfortable about leaving home without a mask over the next few weeks compared with 83 per cent in February 2021.
People were more likely to wear masks if they thought they were threatened and if they thought that masks were effective – but also if they saw others around them masked, Baker said.
Baker remained concerned that, with the Government now having removed many mask mandates, and Covid-19 being well established, many people were growing indifferent to covering up.
"They might think that it's futile and that we're all going to get this virus anyway."
Rather, he said masks remained just as important as before, and offered people protection against all Covid-19 variants, influenza, and multiple respiratory viruses with minimal disruption to society.
"We still need a lot of guidance on choosing the most suitable and effective masks to use, along with making them free, or subsidised so they are available for all New Zealanders," he said.
"It does surprise me that we still don't have a national mask strategy in place in this country, despite advocating for one for well over a year now."
He and more than 150 other health experts have urged the Government to reinstate a mask mandate in classrooms this winter.