Oct 13, 2020
When will Americans return to normal activities? Over the past few months, Dr. Don Vaughn surveyed thousands of Americans about reopening the economy and going back to restaurants, airplanes, and sporting events. Over time, sentiment has improved, but it still has a ways to go in most sectors.
- We used the Invisibly Realtime Research™ survey unit to ask Americans when they would consider returning to a variety of normal activities.
- Respondents are more likely to return soon to low-density activities such as going to the dentist and getting a haircut.
- There has been an improvement in consumer sentiment towards all activities surveyed, except sporting events.
- Respondents remain uncomfortable with reopening plans, but less so than previous months.
As localities around the country began issuing stay at home orders, there was a lot of uncertainty—about Americans’ sense of safety, local an
d national decisions to reopen, and the likelihood that consumers would resume their usual activities once America did reopen. There remains no clear consensus on these factors and outcomes. Yet, plans for public health and economic revitalization require a forecast of when Americans will return to their previous levels of various activities. Even the best models can only go so far in predicting consumers’ sentiments and actions. A more involved but direct method is to ask Americans directly. Unfortunately, in-person surveys are expensive to administer and suffer from geographic bias. Traditional online surveys suffer from low engagement rates as only a small fraction of people are willing to drop their current tasks to participate.
The Covid Canvas
For the COVID Canvas, we used Invisibly Realtime Research™ surveys to canvas Americans with a series of questions about their intentions to resume participation in various activities. Invisibly Surveys differ from traditional online surveys in that the questions are shown to the user on webpages in place of an ad (Figure 1). Unlike Google Surveys—which block access to content until the questions are answered—Realtime Research™ Surveys are optional, ensuring that participants respond voluntarily.
Figure 1. An example of the 300 x 250 Realtime Research™ survey unit. Questions are shown to the user on webpages in place of an ad.
The May canvas results suggested that Americans were conceptualizing the riskiness of activities in two main groups: activities with relatively few people in close proximity, and those with larger crowds (Figure 2A). Americans were far more ready to return to settings, such as the gym, restaurants, and even airplanes, in which they could reasonably expect to be in proximity with no more than a couple hundred people. By contrast, Americans were only half as likely to return in the next six months to densely-crowded activities such as sporting events or cruises. These results echoed and expanded upon a study from Nationscape,1 conducted around the same time, which found the same order of readiness to return to the three activities that overlapped between the two surveys (Figure 2B).
Figure 2. Crowd density predicts Americans’ timeline for re-engaging in activities. A. Results from our April Invisibly survey suggested that Americans were more ready to return to activities that involved fewer people in close proximity. B. These results echoed and expanded upon a study conducted by Nationscape around the same time, which returned an identical order of readiness to return to the three activities that overlapped between the two surveys.
Each individual Invisibly Survey response had location information, thus allowing for geographic insights. Answers varied across regions—for example, 65% of respondents in Wisconsin said they would not engage with a majority of these activities for 6+ months, while only 30% of Nevada respondents were similarly cautious.
What might account for this geographic difference? Our analysis revealed that respondents from states with greater population density, higher median age, and more years of median educational attainment were more likely to wait 6+ months to resume activities (Figure 3 A-C).2 County population density revealed a similar trend (Figure 3D). Notably, state median income and the political affiliation of the governor did not meaningfully predict responses.3
Figure 3. Population attributes predict the likelihood of waiting 6+ months to return to activities. A-C. Greater state population density, higher median age, and more years of educational attainment predicted an increased likelihood of responding “6+ months” to a majority of questions on the Realtime Research™ survey. Dots represent individual states, and the dot radius reflects the number of respondents. D. County population density was similarly predictive. Dots represent individual counties.
We compared these initial results with those obtained from subsequent canvases in June, July, and August. To simplify this comparison, we combined the 4 possible responses into a single number—the Covid Consideration Index (CCI)—by assigning a value to each response: 0 for “6+ Months,” 33 for “3-6 Months,” 66 for “1-2 Months,” and 100 for "Now." This index measures the extent to which respondents are willing to re-engage in a given activity, from 0 (the least willing) to 100 (the most willing). In the time between the first survey (May 17th) and the second survey (June 3rd), consumer sentiment improved across many sectors including restaurants, vacationing, and sporting events. In the time between the second survey and the third survey (June 30th), there was a broad regression in consumer sentiment in nearly all areas surveyed. Between the third survey and the fourth survey (August 4th), however, consumer sentiment improved again across most categories including going to the gym, dining at restaurants, and flying on airplanes (Figure 4B).
Figure 4. Americans are ready to return to some activities. A. Results from our Realtime Research™ surveys suggest that Americans are more ready to return to activities that involve fewer people in close proximity than to those with denser crowds. B. Comparing the August 4th results with those from seven weeks prior (June 30th), consumer sentiment improved in most areas.
We also asked Americans a set of more general pandemic-related questions regarding their trust in the CDC, their state’s reopening plan, their stimulus check, and their summer plans. Most Americans generally trust the CDC, but the largest cohort of respondents believes the CDC is “completely untrustworthy” (Figure 5A). Many Americans are nervous about the speed of reopening (Figure 5B). A majority used their stimulus check to pay bills (Figure 5C) and already cancelled their summer plans (Figure 5D).
Figure 5. General questions about living in the pandemic. Americans generally trust the CDC, are nervous about the speed of reopening, used their stimulus check to pay bills, and already have cancelled their summer plans.
We show here that over the summer, Americans have remained more hesitant about re-engaging in activities that involve denser crowds. We found a decrease in readiness to re-engage in many areas. It is thus possible that a full recovery of these sectors may require significant investment in infrastructure to mitigate transmission risks and allay the public’s concerns. Alternatively, a substantial decrease in cases may achieve the same goal.
Our more general panel of questions revealed that Americans overall still trust the CDC as an institution, but a sizeable cohort finds the CDC completely untrustworthy. Most Americans remain nervous about their state’s reopening plan—specifically, a majority fear that it is moving too fast. Most respondents already had cancelled their summer plans, and they used their stimulus check to pay bills rather than fund a vacation.
We intend these results to improve the predictive modeling of businesses across America so they can plan supply lines and hirings accordingly. We selected these questions to capture a wide snapshot of Americans’ plans regarding several types of economic reopening. However, the Realtime Research™ survey unit may be used to gather more nuanced information in particular business sectors.