Poll: Many Americans won’t venture into public despite businesses reopening

A new poll from the Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research shows that only about half of Americans are ready to resume many of the activities they regularly did prior to the coronavirus pandemic, like watching a movie or attending a sporting event, if given the option.

The survey results underscore the reality that reviving the US economy is not just a matter of opening businesses and venues, but of the public’s perception about the safety of venturing out to crowded spaces and interacting with high-touch surfaces.

The survey, taken from May 14 to 18 (with a 4.2 percentage point margin of error), asked 1,065 US adults about the kinds of activities they did regularly before the pandemic, and whether they would consider taking them up again in the next few weeks if allowed to do so. It compared these responses to those of Americans in general by combining the answers of respondents who once regularly engaged in the surveyed activities with the answers of those who did not.

Overall, it found that Americans who did things like go to the gym or attend religious services at least monthly prior to the pandemic were more likely to say they’d return to doing so if given the chance. Nevertheless, for most activities — particularly those with higher risks of infection like concerts or using public transportation — fewer than half of those who once regularly engaged with them said they would do so if restrictions were lifted.

For example, 42 percent of Americans who went to a sporting event regularly (that is, at least monthly) said they would “probably or definitely” go to one in the next few weeks if they could. By contrast, 19 percent of Americans overall said they felt the same way.

Similarly, 48 percent of Americans who had regularly used public transportation said they would again do so if allowed in the next few weeks; just 14 percent of Americans overall would. Gyms still had a way to go as well: 50 percent of regular gym-goers would return if local measures let them, while only 24 percent of Americans on the whole said the same.

Respondents expressed more interest in going out to restaurants and bars, but the numbers were still low overall: 43 percent of the public overall said they’d go to one, and 52 percent of people who did so routinely said the same.

The activities that pollsters found Americans are more likely to be enthusiastic about resuming included visiting friends and family (81 percent of those who previously did so regularly said they would resume doing so once allowed; 73 of the public overall said they would); getting a haircut (72 percent of those who got cuts at least once a month would get them again, compared to 54 percent of Americans overall); and shopping in person for nonessential items (69 percent of regular shoppers would pick up their old habits; 64 percent of Americans said they’d go out shopping as well).

There was something of a split among Americans in general and regular attendees of religious services — but 67 percent of those who were regular attendees said they planned go back to their services once they could, compared to the 38 percent of Americans overall who planned to return to religious events.

This poll — and others like it — suggest reopening may not solve the US’s economic problems

The picture that emerges from the survey is that while there are a substantial number of people inclined to resume their habitual activities, many of them — and sometimes more of them than not — aren’t yet ready to do so. And that Americans on the whole are not ready to resume life as usual.

This would suggest that reopening nonessential businesses may have a limited effect on a struggling economy. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias has explained, the economic crisis is not one induced simply by government shutdowns of nonessential businesses designed to contain Covid-19, but genuine, widespread concern about contracting the coronavirus:

The problem is a question of fear. Americans fear spreading or contracting infection, so much so that they’ve overwhelmingly participated in social distancing measures. They tell pollsters by wide margins that they fear lifting those restrictions too soon much more so than too late. They’re willing to stay put even if it harms the economy.

As Yglesias notes, restaurant bookings nosedived before bars and restaurants were shuttered by state governments. Given this fact and data like that of the AP/NORC survey, it’s fair to surmise that fear of disease is playing a crucial role in wrecking the economy.

It’s telling that the most popular activity in the new poll was seeing friends and family. Months of social distancing has certainly left many longing to see those they care about. But, notably, seeing friends and family is an activity that can generally be done without being exposed to strangers or crowds. In other words, it’s likely popular because it’s an activity where people can trust that they’re fairly safe.

It is also an activity that — barring a need to travel long distances — does not require spending any significant sum of money. And, that people were found to be cautious about activities more likely to stimulate the economy suggests a return to economic normalcy may be some ways off, regardless of how many nonessential businesses reopen.


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