The idea that Americans are tired of the pandemic has become conventional wisdom, with important policy implications. Democratic governors in blue states like New Jersey and California have rolled back mask mandates, citing the importance of “normalcy.” But is “normal” what Americans really expect? And what does “normal” even mean, anyway?
A recent Monmouth University poll found that 70 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “It’s time we accept that Covid is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.” This poll got a lot of attention — it was featured in The New York Times, The Hill and other outlets, and was even discussed in a recent episode of FiveThirtyEight’s Politics podcast. It’s not an outlier, either. A Feb. 11-13 poll from Harris found that 71 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “We will be living with COVID in some form forever.”
At this point, most Americans believe COVID-19 will persist into the near (or distant) future, but what that means to people’s daily lives is the subject of much more dissent. That’s because understanding COVID-19 as an ongoing reality means something different to everyone.
For some, it means going back to pre-pandemic life, without mask mandates, vaccine requirements or other public health measures to contain the spread of the virus. But that’s not what it means to most, according to a Feb. 4-7 Axios/Ipsos poll, in which just 21 percent of Americans said we should “get back to life as usual with no coronavirus mandates or requirements.” To be sure, 29 percent thought we should move toward that goal with some precautions, while 23 percent wanted to mostly keep precautions in place and 21 percent wanted to increase precautions. Part of the reason opinion is so divided is that Americans are simultaneously ready and not-ready to go back to pre-pandemic life. Over three-quarters of Americans said they were “ready to return to normal”, according to a Feb. 12-15 poll from The Economist/YouGov. And yet the Axios/Ipsos poll showed that 54 percent thought doing so posed a large or moderate risk.
What Americans want regarding COVID-19 is all over the place. And there’s only so much the polls can tell you. For instance, they can’t list every public health response to COVID-19, much less every combination of responses. But polls show that support is shifting more toward individual precautions than toward COVID-19 protections mandated for society at large.
And Americans seem to be OK with being more cautious in their personal decisions. That is, they’re more willing to undergo measures like mask-wearing or vaccinations for themselves, though they may not want to institute it as a requirement. According to a Jan. 24-30 poll from the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of Americans were fully vaccinated, but just 58 percent supported requiring proof of vaccination to fly. And Americans were even less supportive of requiring vaccines for the four other activities Pew asked about — attending a sporting event or concert (53 percent), going to college in-person (52 percent), eating inside a restaurant (46 percent) and shopping inside a store (40 percent). In fact, overall support for vaccine mandates may be declining. Americans were 3 to 5 percentage points more supportive of requiring vaccines for these activities when Pew polled about this in August 2021.
Support for mask mandates is mixed. In the aforementioned Harris poll, 55 percent of Americans strongly or somewhat agreed that it was time to lift indoor mask mandates. But the Monmouth poll found that 52 percent supported statewide mask and social-distancing guidelines, though this figure is down from 55 percent in December and from 63 percent in September. Likewise, according to Axios/Ipsos, support for local and statewide mask mandates in all public places tended to fluctuate inside a somewhat narrow range of 60 percent to 67 percent, with the greatest support roughly correlated to the peaks of the delta and omicron waves. But one thing is clear: Even if Americans are backing mask mandates less, most still say they would wear a mask indoors. The Harris poll also found that 69 percent of Americans were at least somewhat likely to keep wearing masks indoors now that indoor mask mandates were being lifted, and for those living in places with mask mandates, 58 percent said they would continue to occasionally mask up once those requirements were removed, according to The Economist/YouGov.
One reason support for vaccine and mask mandates may be falling is that the public simply doesn’t trust the government to handle the pandemic correctly. Approval ratings for hospitals’ and medical centers’ responses to COVID-19 were still very high, according to Pew, but approval ratings for President Biden, public health officials and elected officials in state and local governments all declined by double digits since March 2020. In fact, Pew found a significant decline in the approval rating for state elected officials, from a high of 70 percent in March 2020 to a low of 46 percent in January 2022. This may be why governors in particular are pushing for a return to normal.
Pew also found that shifting public health guidelines have led to an increasing share of Americans who feel confused or less confident in public officials’ recommendations. They also just trust public health officials less than they used to. After almost two years of dealing with the pandemic, Americans may trust their own decision-making more than guidance from the government.
Gone, too, are the days of declaring a “full-scale wartime effort” until the virus is “vanquished.” Instead, there’s more acceptance among Americans that the pandemic is probably here to stay in some form. What this means, though, has been the subject of so much debate that it’s unsurprising that so many Americans are uncertain about what actions should be taken on a broader scale to address the pandemic. Regulating their individual actions — and expressing their discontent — may really be the only thing under their control.
Other polling bites
- The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the workforce, with many workers quitting their jobs to seek other opportunities, but Americans still think employers have the upper hand. According to a Feb. 5-8 poll from The Economist/YouGov, Americans thought that employers had “a great deal” or “a lot” of leverage in the labor market (43 percent), versus workers (20 percent) — even though many Americans (47 percent) believed the pandemic increased the bargaining power of workers. (Another 34 percent said it had no effect and 18 percent said that it increased the power of employers.)
- Health care workers give themselves, their coworkers, their employers and hospitals high marks when evaluating their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Jan. 31-Feb. 11 Morning Consult/Axios poll. Eighty-nine percent said they strongly or somewhat approved of how health care workers had handled the pandemic, compared with 83 percent for their coworkers, 79 percent for employers and 78 percent for hospitals. But similar to other Americans, health care workers were dissatisfied with how the pandemic was handled by the Biden administration (just 44 percent approved) and the American public (34 percent approved).
- More Americans are growing dissatisfied with current levels of immigration in the U.S., but that’s because Republican dissatisfaction hit a record high of 87 percent, an increase of 32 percentage points from last year, according to a Jan. 3-16 poll from Gallup. That large spike among Republicans is to be expected — immigration is an increasingly partisan issue, and the GOP tends to disagree with how Democratic presidents handle the issue.
- There were also sharp partisan divides surrounding what Americans believe the federal government’s biggest priorities for 2022 should be, according to a Jan. 10-17 survey from the Pew Research Center. The greatest differences were in dealing with climate change (65 percent of Democrats cited this as a top priority, versus 11 percent of Republicans) and COVID-19 (80 percent for Democrats, 35 percent for Republicans). But Americans of all political stripes viewed strengthening the economy as the most important issue overall, with 71 percent saying it should be a top priority (although that is a decline of 9 percentage points from last year).
- Overwhelming majorities of Republicans want a presidential candidate who shares former President Trump’s views on policy issues (84 percent), the COVID-19 vaccine (78 percent) and the 2020 election (70 percent), according to a Feb. 8-11 poll from CBS News/YouGov. But their opinion on Trump’s personal conduct is more mixed. Just 54 percent said they want someone who comports themselves similarly to Trump. That said, Republicans still favor Trump running again: 69 percent said he should run again in 2024, with 70 percent of that group saying he would be the best Republican candidate.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 41.4 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 53.0 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.6 points). At this time last week, 41.3 percent approved and 52.6 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -11.3 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 42.5 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.1 percent, for a net approval rating of -9.6 points.
In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,2 Republicans currently lead by 2.1 percentage points (44.8 percent to 42.6 percent). A week ago, Republicans led Democrats by 2.0 points (44.5 percent to 42.6 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Republicans by 0.6 points (42.4 percent to 41.8 percent).