Today’s Washington Post poll raises a tough question that will likely become the hallmark of our public engagement for the next couple of years at least. Does discomfort mean opposition, or just dread, in terms of getting back to normal economic “intercourse,” as Joe Biden puts it these days? The data from this poll paints a very pessimistic picture of the American consumer, which has economic considerations all on its own, but it also seems to blur the line between opposition and an absence of enthusiasm — at times, anyway.
This is evident from the Post’s opening paragraphs in its report:
Americans clearly oppose the reopening of restaurants, retail stores and other businesses, even as governors begin to lift restrictions that have kept the economy locked down in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.
The opposition expressed by sizable majorities of Americans reflects other cautions and concerns revealed in the survey, including continuing fears among most people that they could become infected by the coronavirus, as well as a belief that the worst of the medical crisis is not yet over.
About half of states have eased restrictions on businesses, but Americans’ unease about patronizing them represents a major hurdle to restarting the economy. Many Americans have been making trips to grocery stores and 56 percent say they are comfortable doing so. But 67 percent say they would be uncomfortable shopping at a retail clothing store, and 78 percent would be uncomfortable eating at a sit-down restaurant. People in states with looser restrictions report similar levels of discomfort as those in states with stricter rules.
One interesting point here is a small but steady rise in personal concern over infection. It’s a bit within the margin of error, but it’s gone from 57/42 to 63/36 over the past month. That’s not a trend that helps with the other questions in this poll, and neither is the result on the very next question, in which a narrow plurality of 38% believe “the worst is yet to come” in respondents’ communities. This pessimism and lack of confidence sets the stage for the rest of the results in this poll.
The flaw in the WaPo analysis is a mixing of the concepts of “opposition” and “uncomfortable,” which are not synonymous even if they are related. We will all have to do tasks we find uncomfortable in the pandemic, including business we have conducted all along, like grocery shopping, without necessarily opposing it being open. For instance, 44% of respondents overall claimed to be “uncomfortable” with grocery shopping “at this time,” which seems pretty reasonable in a pandemic that spreads in crowds and has no cure or effective treatment at the moment. That doesn’t mean that 44% of respondents want grocery stores shut down, or even that 44% aren’t going to grocery stores at all for now. They’re still going, but likely less often, and with more dread.
The poll does explicitly ask about opposition to some consumer activity, albeit in terms of “your state,” while discussing comfort on a personal basis with other consumer activity, with two of the latter crossing over into both categories (retail clothing stores and restaurants). Not surprisingly, those two crossovers scored almost identically when asked regarding personal comfort and public policy. One can speculate that personal discomfort is driving a lot of these numbers on public policy, too:
Two potential personal-taste points stick out here — gun stores and golf courses, neither of which have the same transmission issues as the rest of these entries. Golf courses operate outdoors, where COVID-19 transmission is practically non-existent, which is why Minnesota and other states have opened them back up. Gun stores have the ability to limit capacity, and their inventory is easily cleaned and controlled, unlike clothing stores and other retail consumer outlets where customers routinely handle merchandise with no control at all. There’s no particular reason not to open both except for personal taste and comfort choices, whereas the rest of these have specific issues about viral transmission that might make them more legitimately concerning.
With that said, though, opposition to reopening these outlets has a fairly consistent consensus on a partisan basis. Republican majorities want stores to reopen retail stores (52%) and golf courses (58%), but 60% oppose reopening gun stores. Otherwise, opposition is fairly consistent across all demos, and respondents in states that have begun reopening score these almost identically to those who have not.
However, that demo also shows why “opposition” might be being confused with “uncomfortable” with respondents. If voters are that opposed to reopening these businesses, one would expect them to rate their governors more harshly for having done so. Instead, the two sets of respondents rate their governors nearly equally highly. Those whose states are reopening (based on orders from governors, of course) give their state execs as 70/30 approval rating, and those who are still locking down rate their governors 79/21. For that matter, Donald Trump’s approval ratings are almost identical between the two as well, 45/55 and 43/57, respectively, as he pushes for a broader reopening. That’s a lot narrower than the gaps in the reopening question asked about the eight different types of businesses.
Voters aren’t punishing governors who reopen these businesses, nor does it appear they are rewarding governors who keep them locked down. This entire poll looks like an exercise in personal comfort — but that’s still a big problem for reasons other than politics. Even if we reopen all of these businesses tomorrow, it looks like 60-75% of consumers simply won’t use them. At all. Nor will many of them choose to work in those businesses under present circumstances, which will make it difficult for them to operate. There isn’t enough confidence in public health at the moment for many to take those risks, which means they will only undertake a limited amount of discomfort — as little as necessary, it seems.
The only way to fully reopen is to restore that confidence in public health. That means at least some established, effective therapeutic treatment to prevent death from an acute infection, but it will probably take a vaccine to really get us back to normal. Until then, people will either shop at home or not at all, except when absolutely necessary, unless they’ve already survived a COVID-19 infection and have built up some immunity. Be prepared for a months-long slog before seeing the other side of the economic V.