It’s the question on everyone’s mind as unemployment claims skyrocket and retail sales crater. Is it time yet to bring the American economy out of its induced coma? The answer, according to today’s Politico/Morning Consult poll, is a big no. By an 81/10 margin, Americans don’t want to stop social-distance policies as long as the threat of the COVID-19 infection remains acute.
The problem, however, is the either/or nature of the question — and the ambiguity of “social distancing” in this context:
As Trump prepares to restart the nation’s economic engine — which was abruptly cut a month ago as the new coronavirus began to spread rapidly throughout the country — a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll shows the vast majority of voters support continuing the social-distancing measures that appear to be helping the U.S. hamper the rapid spread of Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus.
More than eight in 10 voters, 81 percent, say Americans “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” Only 10 percent say Americans “should stop social distancing to stimulate the economy, even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus.” Nine percent of voters have no opinion.
While Democrats (89 percent) are more likely than Republicans (72 percent) to say Americans should continue the “social distancing” measures, large majorities in all demographic groups say it’s more important to stop the spread of the virus than to resume economic activity that could undermine those mitigation efforts.
The framing of this question is important, though, because it tends to assume maximalist positions in either direction. Further questions tend to add more nuance than 81/10 allows. For instance, the idea of allowing some workers to get back to their jobs even as the virus spreads is not popular at 37/52, but only 32% strongly oppose the idea, and more than a third of Americans support it to some degree. Limiting workers’ return to only 45 years of age and younger is less popular, 27/58, but again not as dramatic as the 81/10 number seen for keeping current restrictions in place.
The problem with that topline question is that it assumes that “social distance” and business are incompatible. Americans are smarter than that, however. When asked if businesses can reopen while limiting the number of customers at any one time, support for an economic restart jumps to 66/24, with only 10% strongly opposing the idea. That’s a huge difference from the lead result given by Politico.
The clear lesson from this is that America’s not looking for an or — it’s looking for an and. Americans want to reopen the public square and continue social distancing and doing mitigation against the spread of the Wuhan Flu. That won’t be easy and it will take a slow, deliberate process, but that is what the White House’s plan attempts to do, the Washington Post reports:
Other agencies and White House officials have drafted similar planning documents, a White House aide said. The version obtained by The Post appears to be an early draft by FEMA and contains granular instructions for a phased reopening of institutions such as schools, child-care facilities, summer camps, parks, faith-based organizations and restaurants. …
The plan lays out three phases: Preparing the nation to reopen with a national communication campaign and community readiness assessment until May 1. Then, the effort through May 15 would involve ramping up manufacturing of testing kits and personal protective equipment and increasing emergency funding. Then staged reopenings would begin, depending on local conditions. The plan does not give dates for reopenings but specified “not before May 1.”
The first priority, according to the CDC response document, is to “reopen community settings where children are cared for, including K-12 schools, daycares, and locally attended summer camps, to allow the workforce to return to work. Other community settings will follow with careful monitoring for increased transmission that exceeds the public health and health care systems.”
The document also says that during phased reopenings, it is critical to strictly follow recommendations on hand-washing and wearing face coverings in group settings.
The plan also carries this warning: “Models indicate 30-day shelter in place followed by 180 day lifting of all mitigation results in large rebound curve — some level of mitigation will be needed until vaccines or broad community immunity is achieved for recovering communities.”
Clearly, the CDC and FEMA are focusing on an and that will encourage people to slowly re-enter their economic lives. The Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that Americans are champing at the bit to do so, under the right conditions and with deliberate care to keep their distance from each other as much as possible. When the plan comes together more firmly, polling should be able to tell us whether Americans have enough confidence in it to engage again. For now, though, don’t be fooled by the binary question that generated the 81/10 support for a continued coma.