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One month later, Americans' views of the coronavirus have undergone a seismic shift.
The pandemic's impact on their daily lives and their assessments of the perils it poses have exploded, a new USA TODAY/Ipsos Poll finds, amid rising uncertainty about when routine daily activities will seem safe again.
The changes are dramatic but not surprising in the wake of four devastating weeks in which almost all Americans have been ordered to stay at home and the nation's death toll has reached a global record.
The number who say the virus poses a high threat to them personally and to the USA doubled.
"At first, I thought, OK, we're going to have to do this; everyone stay at home for a few weeks, for a month, and we'll be back to normal," says Brent Charnigo, 39, of Cleveland, who was among those surveyed. "Now it's clear that's not going to be the case. It's going to be long-lasting." How long? He pauses. "Years."
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He and his wife work from home and try to explain to their 5-year-old son, Ben, why he can't play with his friends or visit the zoo.
"I could see it going to the end of the year," Samantha Piotrowski, 27, of Jersey City, New Jersey, says in another follow-up interview. "I can't see it getting better until there’s a vaccine found."
Nearly everybody has seen their lives upended in one way or another: Stressed about the safety of a mother who is a nurse caring for coronavirus patients. Barbecuing Easter ribs for grandchildren, then having to drop them off and leave without a hug. Grieving for a friend who has gone into hospice care but can't be visited. Wondering if there will be any jobs available when the crisis is over.
USA TODAY and Ipsos conducted a nationwide poll about COVID-19 on March 10-11, when the pandemic was gaining steam. At the time, the World Health Organization had reported more than 100,000 coronavirus cases worldwide, and President Donald Trump had curtailed entry from foreign nationals who had visited China in the previous two weeks. He declared a national emergency a few days later, on March 13.
One month later, last Thursday and Friday, the same poll measured how public attitudes changed as the reality on the ground worsened. More than 95% of the U.S. population is under statewide stay-at-home orders, and the number of deaths in the country has passed 21,000.
Each of the online surveys polled 1,005 adults nationwide. The credibility interval, akin to a margin of error, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The poll found a sharpened sense of the dangers and an increasingly somber assessment of the challenges ahead. Trust in governors to provide accurate information has grown by double-digits.
“America is a different place than it was a month ago,” says Cliff Young, president of Ipsos. “In that time, we’ve seen Americans take a collective pause from public gatherings, a decline in consumer confidence and rising anxiety levels. The changes we’ve seen in this poll highlight our COVID-19 world.”
A consensus: Lock it down
By an overwhelming 3-1, 69%-21%, Americans endorse a nationwide lockdown through the end of April, requiring people to stay at home except for essential work. The idea is backed by solid majorities across partisan lines, by 8 in 10 Democrats and 62% of Republicans.
In follow-up phone interviews, those surveyed express more concern about the health risks of reopening the country too soon than of the economic risks of keeping it closed for too long.
"I would prefer to be extra-cautious, to be very mindful about a flare-up that might get into a wildfire effect," says Jaime Ramos, 41, of San Antonio, who was recovering from an injury and beginning to look for work when the pandemic hit. "In my local community, we haven't reached the plateau yet. At the very least, we need positive cases to come way down and be very rare to maintain some kind of semblance of normality."
He acknowledges that taking it slow could complicate his efforts to land a job.
"Prior to, there were a lot of openings," he says. Now, "people are getting laid off right, left and center." Nearly half of those who are employed, 46%, are concerned that they may be laid off or furloughed from their jobs.
There is a strong appetite for government action. On a list of 10 potential steps, Americans endorse nine of them, sometimes by 2-1. Support rose for all eight proposals that were included in the earlier survey, sometimes more than doubling.
By 92% to 4% – close to unanimous – Americans want the federal government to make the COVID-19 test widely available. About 8 in 10 support drastic steps on immigration: imposing mandatory quarantines for people who have traveled to any other country and temporarily stopping immigration from all other countries. Seven in 10 want to ground all international flights. Almost half, by 49%-34%, want to ground all domestic flights.
More than 8 in 10 support expanding paid sick leave so more workers would be eligible. Six in 10 support temporary financial help for airlines and other affected industries.
One proposal does divide the country, and along partisan lines. Those surveyed split when asked if the government should provide temporary financial help for undocumented immigrants who can't work because of layoffs or illness: 40% in favor, 42% against, 18% "didn't know." Sixty-eight percent of Republicans oppose the idea; 58% of Democrats support it.
Only virtual hugs for Gloria
There is a newfound national consensus on the threat that COVID-19 poses. In the space of a month, those who see the virus as a high threat to the USA have more than doubled, to 71% from 34%. The sense of a high threat to the global economy (to 76% from 47%) and to the stock market (to 68% from 47%) also spiked.
The assessment that the coronavirus poses a high threat to "you personally" nearly doubled, to 29% from 15% in March. More than 6 in 10 are concerned that their hospital won't have the resources needed to treat infected patients.
"I'm only going out when it's absolutely necessary, and I have started wearing a mask when I go out," says Kathy Wilson, 52, an artist from Tampa, Florida, who was among those surveyed. Wilson says a group of friends who knit blankets and hats for charities had to stop gathering each week at the library; they work from their homes. What's more painful is this: Since the pandemic began, the leader of the group, known as Gloria's Crazy Crafters, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and moved to hospice care.
"None of us can visit her or anything like that," Wilson says. "We've been giving her well wishes over her Facebook page and virtual hugs."
Life has changed for most Americans. Three of four report washing their hands more frequently, as public health officials urge, and more than half wear face masks and/or gloves in public. More than two-thirds stopped attending social events. More than a third stopped attending religious services.
It will take a while before Americans will feel safe resuming routine tasks, the poll found. That could be a worrisome sign for the resumption of economic activity once the health crisis subsides. Only a third of those surveyed who have canceled a personal trip would feel comfortable taking one in the next three months. Almost half of those who stopped attending social events would feel comfortable resuming them in that time.
Bill Sei, 74, a retired municipal bonds trader from suburban Manchester, Missouri, isn't sure when the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight will resume sponsoring all-expenses-paid trips to take aging veterans to visit the World War II Memorial in Washington. He and his wife, Rosie, volunteer for the nonprofit organization, and they were able to take a group in early March. The trip planned for May and two for June were first rescheduled, then postponed.
"We don't want to give them another date" in case it turns out they have to be delayed again, he says. The countdown clock on the group's website shows the next trip scheduled for July 21 – they hope.
"We're anxiously waiting the end of this," says Sei, who was among those to participate in the poll. Sunday, he and his wife barbecued ribs and made mashed potatoes for the Easter dinner their daughter, her husband and their two teenage children would have. But they had to drop off the food at the porch of their house without risking physical contact.
"We can wave from the car," he said.
For governors, a boost in trust
The sources most trusted for accurate information about the pandemic continue to be the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trusted by 80%, and the World Health Organization, trusted by 70%. Over the past month, trust has risen a bit for Trump, up 6 points to 44%, Vice President Pence, up 7 points to 46%, and the U.S. Congress, up 6 points to 41%. Trust in the news media has risen 9 points, to 48%.
The biggest change has been a significant increase in trust in governors. They have taken the lead in deciding when to order statewide shutdowns and in trying to obtain protective medical gear and ventilators. Some have been livestreaming daily briefings to provide updates to their citizens.
Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed express trust in their governors, an increase of 16 points since March. The view is bipartisan: 65% of Republicans, 81% of Democrats, 55% of independents.
Governors as a group are more highly trusted than the president by 25 percentage points, a difference that could be significant if there is a clash between statehouses and the White House about when parts of the nation can safely reopen.
"The most trustworthy source I can rely on is my mayor, Mayor (Ron) Nirenberg, and the governor, Gov. (Greg) Abbott," Ramos says. "I can look at them and say their word is pretty much gold as far as what kind of medical fallout we might have, what kind of outlook."
The San Antonio resident has less faith in Washington officials from both parties. He voted for Trump in 2016 but says the president has "been playing fast and loose" with the truth. "It did appear to me from the get-go that he did downplay this," he says.
Trust in the president to provide accurate information about the coronavirus predictably tends to be partisan. Eighty percent of Republicans trust in him to provide accurate information about the pandemic; just 14% of Democrats agree.
Wilson of Tampa, a Democrat, calls Trump and Pence "idiots" for failing to provide stronger and earlier leadership in response to the coronavirus outbreak, and she added Florida Gov. Ron DeSantos to her list. "His decision to wait until after spring break to close the beaches was one of the stupidest things I know anybody doing," she says.
Ellen Covarrubias, 69, a Republican from Los Angeles, says criticism of Trump is unfair. "We weren't ready for something like this, and he had to get our nation ready," she says. "I do trust him, and I trust our governor and our mayor," Democrats Gavin Newsom and Eric Garcetti.
"It's been long and hard," Covarrubias says, but she has settled into a new routine. "I go to the stores at 7 a.m. for the 'senior time,' and I run in there and grab what I need for the next five days and go home," immediately removing her shoes and washing her hands. She looks forward to the time when things get back to normal, but "I know we need to be cautious."
She did get good news Friday: Her daughter-in-law, who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, was cleared by her doctor. She had recovered.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Poll: Americans' fears of COVID-19 explode in four devastating weeks