Are Americans ready to return to normal as states move to reopen?
States across the country have started the first stages of reopening, but are Americans ready to resume the “normal” activities taken for granted before the coronavirus? That is the exact question that my firm looked to answer in a recent survey to understand public perceptions and behavior surrounding the pandemic. We found that Americans are not quite ready to return to normal just yet. Indeed, 30 percent of adults polled say that, even after the stay home orders are lifted, they would remain in isolation. Furthermore, a significant majority of Americans say that they prioritize protecting public health above reopening the economy.
Our survey also revealed nuances in terms of which activities Americans are and are not ready to resume soon, and what standards or assurances people require before they feel comfortable resuming different activities. Fear about the pandemic has taken the biggest toll on the transportation, fitness, and travel industries. Nearly half of Americans say that they do not want to take public transportation, use ride sharing services, go to gyms, or travel internationally until a reliable vaccine is available.
When it comes to what Americans will feel comfortable doing within the next month, dining out, limited social engagement, and fulfilling critical work obligations appear to be the top activities. Nearly half of adults say that they will feel comfortable going to a restaurant over the next month. Notably, it is also the “normal” activity that most Americans say that they have missed the most during these many weeks of lockdown.
About a third of adults are ready to begin some work and social activities within the next month. Indeed, roughly a third of Americans say that they will feel comfortable going back to a shared office space, going to a small social gathering, and attending a conference. These items are followed by family and household activities like taking a vacation in the United States, and having cleaners or babysitters allowed inside their homes.
Our survey also found differences when it comes to what must happen in order for people to feel safe resuming “normal” activities. When it comes to those activities that Americans perceive as riskier, such as taking public transportation, using ride sharing services, getting on airplanes, staying at hotels, or going to gyms, feeling comfortable and safe to do them remains contingent on the development of a reliable vaccine. Moreover, pluralities of parents say that they will not feel comfortable sending their children to school or summer camp until a reliable vaccine will be available.
By contrast, when it comes to the activities that Americans are most likely to feel comfortable resuming in the next month, such as dining out, voting in elections, attending small social gatherings, going to outdoor concerts or sports games, or traveling domestically, public health experts deeming it safe to do these items is sufficient for a plurality of Americans.
Indeed, the data suggests that assurances from public health experts on the safety of these activities will be more impactful than actual measures that businesses could take, such as requiring all patrons to wear masks or administering temperature checks. But Americans expect businesses will implement social distancing protocols when they reopen. Vast majorities say that restaurants and bars should limit the number of patrons that they allow inside at once, and that gyms, arenas, theaters, museums, stadiums, and retail shops need to also limit the number of patrons inside.
These new consumer expectations do not coincide with the willingness to pay more to ensure social distancing. Roughly half of adults say that they are not willing to pay more for sports arena seating limited to every other row or every other seat, restaurants and bars that space out dining tables, or airplane tickets that guarantee a spot next to an empty seat.
Our survey findings suggest that the coronavirus will have lasting impacts on the national psyche. More than 10 percent of respondents say that they know someone who has died from the coronavirus. This means that many more Americans have probably died from the disease than the official toll. It is thus no surprise that a majority of Americans believe that there will be fundamental shifts even after the pandemic comes to an end.
Douglas Schoen is a consultant who served as an adviser to President Bill Clinton and to the campaign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His latest book is “Collapse: A World in Crisis and the Urgency of American Leadership.”