From Lockdown to Reopening in Less Than 90 Days
These are the emotions that capture the pulse of the nation’s sentiments as the pandemic quickly developed over the past three months and left no one untouched. Striving to understand what people around the nation think and feel in times of difficulty and constant change, Elucd followed the development of thoughts and opinions of thousands of people nationwide through our surveys over the past four months. We also uncovered the personal stories of thirteen respondents between 18 and 34 years of age, giving voice and color to the sentiment data. It reflected the “why?” behind the “what?” on their journey from isolation to reopening.
When asked about their feelings around the country’s reopening, the reactions of our respondents were mixed. Some were “worried” and “scared” about the implications and resurgence of a second wave. Wu, a 26-year-old Asian-American from Illinois, shuddered at the thought of reopening: “I am so scared of reopening, It scares me that people are rushing in to go back to normal life.”
And then there were others who were comforted by the concept. “I want things to go back to normal, the idea comforts me,” says Henry, a 33-year-old basketball coach from Kansas. To him, the pandemic, while a national catastrophe of great magnitude, was also somewhat of a nuisance in how it disrupted his life as a young father with a three-year-old son. “Coronavirus is annoying and has messed up a lot of people's lives circumstantially,” he says.
How harmful do people think is COVID-19, really?
Elucd data indicates that the Americans’ risk perception of serious harm caused by the virus saw a dip during the first days of June. During the week of June 7, as many states continued to reopen—the overall national perception hit the lowest point of 2.8—on a perceptual scale of 1 to 5, 1 indicating no risk of harm and 5 indicating a very high risk of harm.
The reasons for the decline in perception of harm are not unidimensional.
Our interviews reveal that people are torn between wanting to keep themselves and their loved ones safe and the strong urge to recover a sense of normalcy. This mentally exhausting dilemma, along with the normalization of the concept of a pandemic, has led people to lower their guard in assessing the risk of serious harm from the virus. “The one thing that is a bit different is that I am a little less freaked out when I go outside,” says Mason, a 33-year-old customer support specialist from Portland.
The sense of harm is further reduced by differing fundamental personal opinions. “I am probably more on the lackadaisical side. I am not as cautious as others I know,” he says. “My area is in the middle of the US so it’s not as crowded as somewhere like New York.”
The perception of harm also differed by racial and ethnic groups. The Asian American and Hispanic/Latino populations stayed on the cautious side throughout the pandemic and the initial reopening of the states. Unlike other ethnic groups, Asian and Hispanic Americans remained very aware of the risks associated with the virus, with their average perception never dropping below 3.0 out of 5—always above the national average.
The story, however, was different for White/Caucasian and Black/African-American respondents. For White/Caucasian Americans, the risk of harm the virus presented remained consistently lower than the national average.
During the lowest point nationally in the week of June 7, White Americans’ perception of harm dipped much lower (2.6) than the national average, after a steady decline and continued to remain as low for the following weeks.
At the same time, Black/African-American respondents reported the lowest average perception of harm during the week of June 7 at 2.1—a sharp decline from almost 3.9 during the month prior.
Social distancing and protective measures
Given the declining sense of harm and struggle to continuously isolate and remain indoors, almost half the nation now reports leaving their homes more than 4 times during a regular week. This is in contrast to the month of May, when the majority of Americans would leave no more than once or twice.
The story differs, however, from one racial or ethnic group to the other. While at the first glance, people in the US have indeed been leaving their homes more frequently over a span of a week, this is not the case for Asian-American respondents: as of July 2—53% are still not leaving their home more than twice a week (including 13% who are not leaving at who are not leaving their house at all). This is also the case for 48% of the Hispanic/Latino population. However, in contrast other ethnic groups continue to increase outings more than four times, including 52% of Black/African Americans and 51% of White/Caucasian Americans as of July 2.
With people striving for a distant semblance of normalcy by leaving their shelters more often and distancing themselves less, there is a universal symbol that still continues reminding everyone that the pandemic is still in full swing in the country and it is far from being over yet: masks.
Masks have become an integral accessory to those who venture outside yet need to continuously practice caution.But when it comes to wearing masks—be it medical or improvised—outside of their homes, Americans seem to be divided in their views of the protective measure that’s encouraged—even required—in most states around the country. While close to 40% have been wearing medical masks, and 48% improvised face coverings as of July 13, 19% of the American population thinks protective equipment is not necessary. Instead of a decline, this trend has instead seen a steady incline since April 6, when only 3% of Americans felt the same.
While the majority of Americans continue to wear medical face masks or improvised face covering when in public, there has been a steady increase in support for a different opinion since April and with a peak in late June: that protective measures are not necessary.
Mason, who has remained on the cautious side throughout the pandemic, has six different masks for various occasions. “One is an all-purpose, not something hardcore, if I am going to a store because I will be social distancing anyway,” he says. “But if I might be in close contact with someone indoors, I have a more sophisticated one with a filter that’s more tight around my mouth,” he adds with a chuckle.
For Mason, it has been largely in the hands of the people to maintain a safe environment personally and for others since the first days of reopening. “I feel like personal responsibility has become such an important part of our survival.” But in his eyes, the opposite side of the issue on mask enforcement represents the epitome of American individualism that in this case may borderline egoism and self-interest. “It is this idea that our overemphasis of flippant individualism trumps everything,” he says with notes of concern in his voice. “People don’t feel like they owe it to wear masks, and I think that’s a moral failure if you feel like your ego is threatened by wearing a mask.”
Further, this concept of “overemphasized individualism,” according to Mason, has led people to not comply with protective measures to maximize personal and public safety. In trying to circumvent the discomfort of wearing a mask in his opinion, they wear it incorrectly. “My personal favorite is how they would dangle it off their earlobe,” he laughs, but there is an uneasy edge to his overall tone.
And then there is the contrasting perspective on masks. On this side of the argument, masks are not viewed as necessary measures for self-protection and protection of others; rather, it is considered a limitation of personal freedom and a source of discomfort.
Additionally, our data indicates that overall, close to half the nation is not in support of mask enforcement. As of July 2, 47% believed that masks should not be enforced.
Henry is among those who uphold this view. When it comes to such practices as wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, he is more against than supportive of such protective measures. “I understand it but I do disagree with it. I try to comply with it without the government trying to run my life, I try to find that happy medium,” he says. When it comes to his community’s reaction to the governor’s mandate to wear masks in the state of Kansas, Henry anticipates a response similar to his own—or stronger. “It will put the community into more of a panic than required. She (the Governor) maybe has our best interest at heart but...” Henry pauses as he scratches the back of his head.
Pace of reopening: too soon or too late?
Just as opinions on social distancing and protective measures have differed across the nation, so have opinions on the speed of reopening. Our data indicates that as of July 2, more Americans (44%) tend to think that the pace has been too quick than those think that the pace has been too slow (18%). Taking a look back to the prime reopening month of June, over half of the nation (52%) believed the reopening was too fast as of June 25.
This corroborates what Wu and Mason think. “For me, for things to come back to as they were is not an option yet,” she says. “I was looking forward to bars but I think it’s not a good idea to open them yet.”
The fear stems from the feeling of quick normalization and reopening of businesses.
When asked what they would do differently if given the power to change the reopening strategy, the majority of respondents who shared their stories mentioned slowing the process, extensive testing and strict social distancing and PPE measures as the key steps that could potentially instill better sentiment of safety.
What I would do differently is, I would keep the parks open, maybe set capacity limits, and then for bars and restaurants, focus on the places that have outdoor seating,” suggests Mason. “But where the danger is inside—extended periods of time, bad circulation—I would identify places like that and make sure they stay closed until a vaccine is available.”
Some even mentioned how the phasic reopening needs to be spaced out more, with longer periods of wait before the subsequent set of businesses are allowed to reopen in order to better assess the efficiency of each phase individually.
Looking to the future
It’s nearly impossible to predict what the future will be like due to the changeable nature of the world today. But there are certain ways in which the pandemic has influenced people’s projections for the months to come.
But one trend that the interviews almost certainly pointed out will continue well beyond the pandemic is extra caution and more thorough planning.
Wu hopes that technology will assist people in remaining alert and aware of potential health risks when out in the public. “We could use technology for reminders, like if you have an Apple Watch, maybe it can remind you to not touch your face.” In her opinion, in the future, concerns about health safety will be more of a priority than they have ever been before.
With many trips cancelled or postponed indefinitely, travel won’t be the same in the future, even when people start feeling more comfortable planning ahead. For Mason, the priority will be to keep one of his six different masks on at all times if he were to travel by plane or find himself in an airport.
Wu also thinks that protective equipment will be of priority when preparing for a trip—more important than other items that were considered essential before the pandemic. “I will pack light in terms of clothes as the other half of the packing will be sanitizers and gloves. Also make sure to have only one suitcase: the more backpacks there are, the more germs there will be.”
But for now, people find the beauty in small things. “Just going to a restaurant will be nice,” says Henry. “Our son asks us why we can't go to the McDonald's right across the street. We still have not been able to go to the children's theme park which tugs at a parent’s heart strings a little bit.”