The Memo: The surprising popularity of the Great Lockdown

There is at least one political surprise amid the coronavirus crisis — the Great Lockdown is popular among Americans.

People are, of course, hardly thrilled by stay-at-home orders, closed schools and the myriad other uncertainties of the current situation.

But there is a resilient consensus around the need for such measures — even as President TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE promises a swift return to normal, many states ease restrictions, and the economic effects of the battle against COVID-19 bite deeper and deeper.  

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“I think the public has a sense that this is one of the most dangerous things we have ever faced as a country in any of their lifetimes,” said Larry Gostin, a Georgetown Law School professor who specializes in public health. “They are fearful. They see people dying, they see people suffering, and they don’t want to be one of them and they don’t want their family to be one of them.”

Several recent polls bear out that view.

One from the Kaiser Family Foundation asked adults nationwide whether shelter-in-place orders were “worth it” or “causing more harm than good.” An overwhelming 80 percent said they were worth it.

A Washington Post/University of Maryland poll asked whether people thought that current restrictions were appropriate, too restrictive or not restrictive enough. Only 17 percent of adults said restrictions on restaurants, stores and other business were too restrictive.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released Wednesday asked whether it would be a good or bad idea to permit a return to normalcy in various areas. Allowing a return to work scored the highest percentage: a modest 32 percent. Other options were even less popular: The poll indicated only 19 percent of adults supported allowing restaurants to reopen, 14 percent favored a return to school and just 8 percent were willing to endorse a return to large sporting events.

An Economist/YouGov poll conducted earlier this week asked people when they thought it would be safe to end social distancing measures and reopen businesses as normal. Just 16 percent said it would be safe to do so now or within about two weeks. More than twice as many, 34 percent, thought such a move was “several months” away and 14 percent even suggested it would be “a year or longer” before it could happen.

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The numbers fly in the face of Trump’s evident desire to get back to some sense of normal American life. The president has emphasized, particularly in recent days, the importance of safety as the nation reopens — there have been fewer pronouncements as emphatic as his controversial mid-April tweets calling on people to “liberate” three states.

But the overall thrust of Trump’s view is clear. During a business roundtable meeting at the White House on Wednesday, the president lamented the idea of enforced social distancing at major sporting events.

Trump said he wanted “the new normal being what it was three months ago” and added: “When I look at a baseball game, I want to see people right next to each other. I don't want to see four seats in between every person so that the stadium becomes 25 percent of its original size. No. I want to see the NFL with a packed house. I don't want to see NFL with three seats in between people.”

Some conservative media figures have also been notably skeptical of the need, or the efficacy, of stringent restrictions.

Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonSoured on Fox, Trump may be seeking new propaganda outlet America is dying to reelect Trump Trump tweets clip of 'Independence Day' with himself, allies edited in MORE said on his Fox News show earlier this week that although the curve of deaths from COVID-19 “has been flattened … it’s likely not because of the lockdown. The virus just isn’t nearly as deadly as we thought it was.”

Radio host Rush Limbaugh has been even more scathing, coming close to asserting that the shutdown is a leftist plot. He said on his April 22 show that there was “uniformity in the Democrat party about making sure that you stay shut down.”

Limbaugh continued: “When I see total conformity among a political class of people — Democrats, leftists, whatever — folks, I think those people are dangerous. I don’t subscribe to things that they believe, and my [instinct] is to oppose them and defeat them. They’re too eager for this shutdown to continue.”

Those kinds of views have contributed to some clear variations along partisan lines on the shutdown — but not quite so pronounced a divide as can be seen on many other issues.

In the Economist poll, the share of Republican voters who believed social distancing could be ended and businesses reopened now or within the next two weeks was much bigger than the Democratic figure, but both numbers were modest: 26 percent of Republicans and just 6 percent of Democrats.

John Feehery, a Republican strategist who is also a columnist for The Hill, said he found the polling numbers in general “a little surprising” and asserted that Trump’s overall mindset was well-attuned to his own base voters.

“I think the Republican base is much more restive, which is what the president is reacting to,” Feehery said. “The Republican base, by and large, is going to be far more suspicious of the media culture, and of the government, and of government’s efforts to take liberty away from them.”

Public sentiment could also shift, especially in such a febrile time. Data from the Department of Labor on Thursday pushed the number of new unemployment claims filed over the previous six weeks to more than 30 million.

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“The Democrats who are not showing more of a willingness to open, and who keep making these pronouncements that we are going to be closed until the fall are misreading where the voters are,” Feehery predicted. “The efforts by Republicans to open up are going to help Republicans in the future.”

But others are not so sure.

Gostin, the Georgetown Law professor, said that easing restrictions involves “enormous political risk” as well as a risk to public health.

“Politicians are making the calculation that, if they get people back to work, they will be rewarded for it,” he said. “But if the outcome is a surge of deaths and hospitals under siege, there will be a political price to pay.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.