The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the nature of our social interactions. In order to understand how protective equipment and distancing measures influence the ability to comprehend others' emotions and, thus, to effectively interact with others, we carried out an online study across the Italian population during the first pandemic peak. Participants were shown static facial expressions (Angry, Happy and Neutral) covered by a sanitary mask or by a scarf. They were asked to evaluate the expressed emotions as well as to assess the degree to which one would adopt physical and social distancing measures for each stimulus. Results demonstrate that, despite the covering of the lower-face, participants correctly recognized the facial expressions of emotions with a polarizing effect on emotional valence ratings found in females. Noticeably, while females' ratings for physical and social distancing were driven by the emotional content of the stimuli, males were influenced by the "covered" condition. The results also show the impact of the pandemic on anxiety and fear experienced by participants. Taken together, our results offer novel insights on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social interactions, providing a deeper understanding of the way people react to different kinds of protective face covering.
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