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 willing to resume many of the activities they did regularly prior to the coronavirus pandemic, such as watching a movie or attending a sporting event, if given the opportunity.

The survey results underscore the reality that reviving the U.S. economy is not just a matter of opening businesses and locations, but of the public’s perception of the safety of exploring crowded spaces and interacting with high -touch surfaces.

The survey, taken May 14-18 (with a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points), asked 1,065 American adults about the types of activities they regularly engaged in before the pandemic, and whether they would consider including them again in the coming weeks if allowed to do this. It compared these responses to those of Americans in general by combining the responses of respondents who regularly participated in the activities studied with those of those who did not.

Overall, it found that Americans who did things like go to the gym or go to religious services at least monthly prior to the pandemic were more likely to say they would if given the chance. Nonetheless, less than half of those who used to do it on a regular basis said in most activities – especially those with a higher risk of infection such as concerts or using public transport – that they would if the restrictions were lifted.

For example, 42 percent of Americans who went to a sporting event regularly (that is, at least monthly) said they would “likely or certainly” attend a sporting event if they could. In contrast, 19 percent of Americans generally think the same way.

Likewise, 48 percent of Americans who had used public transportation regularly said they would do it again in the coming weeks; only 14 percent of Americans generally would. Gyms also had a way to go: 50 percent of regular gym-goers would return if local measures allowed, while only 24 percent of Americans in general said it.

Respondents showed more interest in going out to restaurants and bars, but the number was still generally low: 43 percent of the public indicated they would go to one, and 52 percent of the people who routinely did, said the same.

Activities that polls found that Americans are more likely to be excited about resuming included visiting friends and family (81 percent of those who did before said they would resume once they allowed it; 73 of the audience in generally said they would do that); get a haircut (72 percent of those who were cut at least once a month would get them again, compared to 54 percent of Americans in general); and personal shopping for nonessential items (69 percent of regular customers would pick up their old habits, 64 percent of Americans said they would go shopping).

There was something of a division among Americans in general and regular visitors to religious services – but 67 percent of those who were regular visitors said they intended to return to their services as soon as they could, compared to 38 percent of Americans in general who intended to return to religious events.

This poll – and others like it – suggest that reopening may not solve the US economic problems

The picture emerging from the survey is that while a significant number of people tend to resume their usual activities, many of them – and sometimes more of them than not – are not ready yet. And that Americans are generally not ready to resume life as usual.

This would suggest that reopening non-essential companies may have a limited effect on a difficult economy. As explained by Matt Yglesias of Vox, the economic crisis is caused not only by the government shutdown by nonessential companies designed to contain Covid-19, but by genuine concern about the coronavirus contracting:

The problem is a matter of fear. Americans fear spreading or contracting an infection, so much so that they have overwhelmingly participated in social distance measures. They tell pollsters with wide margins that they are afraid to lift those restrictions much sooner than too late. They are willing to stay put, even if it harms the economy.

As Yglesias notes, restaurant bookings surfaced earlier than bars and restaurants concluded by state governments. Given this fact and data such as that from the AP / NORC survey, it is reasonable to assume that fear of disease plays a critical role in destroying the economy.

Significantly, friends and family were the most popular activity in the new poll. Months of social distance have certainly longed to see those they care about. But seeing friends and family in particular is an activity that can generally be done without being exposed to strangers or crowds. In other words, it’s probably popular because it’s an activity people can trust to be fairly safe.

It is also an activity for which, apart from the need to travel long distances, there is no need to spend a significant amount. And that people have been found to be cautious about activities that are more likely to stimulate the economy, suggesting that a return to economic normality may be a long way off, regardless of the number of non-essential businesses being reopened.

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