SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly half of Utahns believe it will be at least a year from now before life returns to normal from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to results of a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll released Monday.
Most Utahns, 27%, said that time will come one year from now, while 20% see it taking several years.
But others are more optimistic, with 21% of Utahns expecting normalcy to return this fall; 12% say within three to six months; and 2% believe within one to two months.
There are 19% of Utahns who say they don’t know when to expect the end of the almost yearlong coronavirus pandemic.
The poll also found that Utahns are less worried about contracting COVID-19 than they were in January.
Now, a quarter say they’re very concerned and 32%, somewhat concerned about contracting it. But 24% are not very concerned, and 19% not at all concerned.
In January, 64% of Utahns were very or somewhat concerned, compared to 57% now, and 35% were not very or not at all concerned then compared to 43% today.
Since the January poll, more Utahns have been added to the vaccine eligibility list, including those 65 and older, and starting March 1, all adult residents with specified medical conditions. There is also less opposition among Utahns to getting vaccinated.
The new poll was conducted Feb. 10-16 by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics of 1,000 registered Utah voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
‘Normal is dependent on so many things that we just can’t control’
Count state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn among those who can’t predict when Utah will be back to normal.
“Well, I hope the 47% who said a year or more are wrong. But I would have to agree with the 19% that say we just don’t know. I mean, this idea of normal is definitely a continuum, and it’s also somewhat subjective,” Dunn said, adding that the state has already shifted to what she called more targeted measures.
As more is learned about the spread of the deadly virus, she said Utah has moved from broad restrictions to “something as simple as a mask mandate versus closing down schools. So I think that continuum needs to be flexible going forward because ‘normal’ is dependent on so many things that we just can’t control.”
The spread of variants of the virus is at the top of that list. Already a dozen cases have been detected in Utah of the highly contagious and possibly more lethal “U.K. variant” that forced Britain into a full lockdown at the start of the year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,661 cases of the variant in 44 states as of Sunday.
“Depending on how well we do at preventing the spread of COVID generally, which will prevent the spread of variants specifically, will determine how quickly we are able to get back to normal,” Dunn said, because otherwise new variants may emerge that are resistant to the existing vaccines, apparently unlike the U.K. variant.
“Which could lead to a whole other surge and us basically having to do this all over again,” she warned.
“I think a worst-case scenario is that variants end up spreading really widely in Utah and the vaccine doesn’t seem to impact them. Best-case scenario is that we keep trending in the right direction like we’re doing right now. We stick this out for several more months,” Dunn said.
But she stopped short of making any more specific predictions about when restrictions that also include limits on gatherings may be lifted. That decision rests with Gov. Spencer Cox, who has said he hopes every Utah adult who wants to be vaccinated can be by the end of May.
That’s faster than the fall date promised by President Joe Biden, and even if Utah is able to meet its goal, Dunn said the state, which has the nation’s youngest population, still wouldn’t have enough residents vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus until those 18 and under can begin getting shots, likely not until next fall or winter.
Whatever steps Utah does take toward returning to the way things were pre-pandemic are likely to be gradual, she said.
“That’s not only the best way to not only protect health but to give the population confidence that it’s safe to engage with the economy,” Dunn said, adding that “a lot of it has to do with tolerance from the public, from policymakers, etc.”
Utahns facing reality normal may not look the same
Rasmussen said he was “really surprised” that so many Utahns see normal as at least a year away.
“Back in March and early April of last year, national polling showed that most people thought the whole thing would be over and we’d be back to normal Memorial Day. They thought it would be a couple of months,” the pollster said.
But now COVID-19 “has been with us so long it’s hard to imagine not being in a pandemic. I think some of it is a recognition of how far from normal we are,” Rasmussen said, with everything from office work to schools and church services being conducted online rather than in person.
“Things have really changed on a grand scale. I would guess it’s going to be hard for people to just return to even an approximation of the way things were,” he said, although the deployment of newly developed vaccines that started in mid-December has offered “a way to fight back” against the virus.
Still, the numbers don’t mean Utahns are pessimistic, Rasmussen said.
“They’re facing the reality of it,” he said. “Right now, people have begun to cope in their own ways and they’re beginning to see, if not a return to normalcy, at least a return to a better life.”
Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Jason Perry said Utahns “are coming to grips that they will be coping with the impacts of this pandemic for a while, even as more vaccines are given out in the state of Utah. People still expect the effects to linger for a while.”
Perry said it’s hard to know what normal will look like in the future.
“People look at their current circumstances, they compare it to what things were like before the pandemic. I’m not sure how many things will go back to the way we knew it. I think many things will, but some may not,” he said, pointing out that a lot of people — 19% — aren’t sure what to expect.
“The answers to this will change when it becomes more clear when people will be able to get that vaccine, when the supply is able to meet the demand,” Perry said. “That is truly going to be the moment when we start getting back to whatever the new normal is.”
What does a return to normal mean for Utahns?
Secondary school assistant principal Steve Geisler, 54, of Woods Cross, said his “best guess” for when normal returns is this fall.
“I’m not really sure. I’m no expert. I’m just quite optimistic. Hopefully, we’ve got to get back to normal sometime, don’t we? I don’t know how long we can keep going like this,” Geisler said, although he said he’s been willing to “take the risk” and go out to eat, ski and visit with family. “You just wear a mask.”
He said he wishes the state had acted sooner on mandating masks because Utahns “could have been much better off” by now. Geisler said he’s personally not very worried about getting COVID-19, but decided to get vaccinated out of concern for those whoare at high risk.
R.J. Mendenhall, 65, a telecommunications analyst from Clinton, said he wants to know “why aren’t we at normal now?”
Mendenhall said he believes it’s the government, not the virus, that has taken a toll on the economy.
“The reason we’re not at normal now is because the government shut things down. So if the government were to say, ‘Everywhere, resume things back to normal, the way they were,’ and took all the restrictions, we could be back to normal in a month,” he said. “Do I believe the government is going to do that? I do not.”
He guessed it will be a year before the Biden administration “turns things loose.”
People should be able to choose whether to wear masks, social distance and stay home, Mendenhall said, even though health experts say widespread adherence to such measures is necessary to protect the public against the spread of the virus.
He said he does wear a mask when required and is “not totally against” getting vaccinated. But Mendenhall said he’s not very concerned about contracting COVID-19 because he’s been trying to get more sleep and taking vitamins to “keep my body so it can fight off whatever it gets.”
Gwen Bellon, 76, a retired community college coordinator from Roosevelt, said she initially believed normal could return by this fall but now sees Christmas or even 2022 as “probably more realistic, if people would just take it seriously. But they don’t. It’s just surprising to me.”
Bellon said she’s seen few people wearing masks in public in the Uinta Basin, including in grocery and other stores. So her husband shops for the couple early in the morning, when the aisles are mostly empty, and they avoid going out to eat.
“We take that seriously because we are old. So we just don’t put ourselves in that spot if we can help it,” she said. Bellon said it took recently getting the first of two vaccine doses for her to finally start worry less about catching COVID-19, “but I was very concerned for a while there.”
She said concern she may spread the virus has kept her from seeing one of her four adult children, a daughter with medical issues in Salt Lake City, for almost a year.
Her definition of normal is being able to gather with all of her family members at least once a month. Asked if she can wait another year for that to happen, Bellon said, “I look at it as we don’t have much choice. ... I think we just need to make the best of it. We’re stuck with it.”