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Are we asking the right questions about COVID-19 and the economy?

A sign to thank front line workers in the COVID-19 pandemic is taped to a pole outside of LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, April 1, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As a public opinion pollster, I am keenly aware of the importance of asking the right question. That’s an especially difficult task when we are dealing with unprecedented circumstances like the coronavirus pandemic.

As I write this, the crux of the public debate seems to revolve around questions of how safe it will be to open up the economy. Many pollsters have asked questions about the apparent trade-offs. I’ve done it myself. A few weeks ago, just 38% were more concerned about the economic threat while 54% worried more about the health threat. This past weekend, the results were more evenly divided — 46% now see economic issues as the top threat while 49% still see health issues as bigger worry.

But the more that I review all the data surrounding this debate, the more convinced I have become that the polling industry is failing to ask some of the most important questions.

One problem is that the framing of the health vs economy narrative is built on the presumption that staying home is healthy and safe, reopening is risky. It’s absolutely true that the lockdowns implemented across the country have helped slow the spread of the contagion. That reality is the reason voters so strongly supported draconian government interventions in the economy.

So, for a short period of time, the stay-at-home orders were undoubtedly safer than continuing normal life. But, over a longer period of time, the lockdowns impose some health risks of their own. In recent weeks, alcohol sales have increased so much that the World Health Organization wants governments to reduce access to adult beverages. There has also been an increase in prescriptions for antidepressant, anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications. Sadly, the cramped living experience has also led to growing concerns about domestic violence and suicide.

In addition to immediate negative health impacts of the lockdown, there are longer term threats as well. It’s not healthy when people exercise less and put on weight. Lower incomes create another set of health and medical concerns.

The point is that we are moving beyond the time when pollsters can simply assume that staying at home is safer than reengaging in society.

A second problem with the framing of the health vs economy narrative is that more is involved than unlocking the economy. Our society has been shut down, not just the economy. Fifty percent of voters say that a top priority when the lockdown ends should be letting people gather in small groups at a friend’s house. Nothing else came close. Obviously, such a move would help relieve some of the short-term mental health issues related to the lockdown.

Tied for second on the voter priority list were reopening churches and retail stores. Thirty-five percent of voters thought each of these should be a top priority. Restaurants, bars, sports and concerts finished lower on the list.

Such priorities are shocking to some. The Washington Post opined that in-person church services right now are an affront to morality.

That perspective highlights a third problem with much of the polling on the lockdowns. The Post simply assumes that in-person church services would be identical to the way they were before the pandemic. The same assumption drives much of the public narrative and public polling about the reopening of restaurants, bars, malls and every other aspect of society.

It’s far more likely, of course, that the experience of the pandemic will change personal behavior and social gatherings. Many Americans who today worry more about the economy than the health threat will still be hesitant about going out to a restaurant on the first day they’re allowed to do so. Many faithful churchgoers will opt for virtual services until they are convinced its safe to worship in-person. Some will never again go to a ballpark or stadium concert. Many will avoid public transit at all costs.

These consumer concerns will empower America’s deep tradition of community problem solving to dictate the pace of reopening society. Restaurant owners will have to convince both workers and customers that they have created a safe enough place to work and eat. Church leaders will be forced to develop worship experiences that protect not just the safety of their flock but the community at large.

Some businesses, perhaps movie theaters, will never recover. That’s partly because they were in trouble before and partly because they’ll struggle to convince customers it’s safe.

For the polling industry, all these realities bring about a real challenge. If we want to provide a credible measure of public opinion, we will have to start addressing some of these underlying issues. How do we accurately measure the very real health trade-offs involved in continuing the lockdowns? How do we shift the focus from reopening the economy to reopening society? And, how do we craft questions that accurately reflect the reality of shifting consumer expectations regarding health safety protocols?

I’ll begin to explore these questions in my own work and provide an update next week.

Scott Rasmussen is an American political analyst and digital media entrepreneur. He is the author of “The Sun Is Still Rising: Politics Has Failed But America Will Not.”