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Social Distancing Plummeted In Lead Up To Fall Surge, Survey Finds

The Museum of Modern Art reminds visitors to practice safe distancing, in August in N.Y.C. Efforts to fight COVID-19 "decreased dramatically" over the summer, researchers say.
The Museum of Modern Art reminds visitors to practice safe distancing, in August in N.Y.C. Efforts to fight COVID-19 "decreased dramatically" over the summer, researchers say.

While Democrats remain more likely than Republicans to support new measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, a majority of U.S. adults from both political parties now agree more steps are needed to fight the pandemic, according to the latest results from a large ongoing survey.

"The bad news here is that we let our guard down in the pandemic and partisan differences remain," says David Lazer, a professor of political science at Northeastern University who is helping lead the survey. "The good news here is, there is a collective desire to do what's necessary to keep the disease at bay."

Lazer and his colleagues at Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities have been surveying about 20,000 U.S. adults nationwide about the pandemic, every month since April.

In one of two new reports from the survey, the researchers analyzed the responses of 139,230 Americans across all 50 states. They found social distancing and other efforts to try to prevent the virus from spreading "decreased dramatically" over the summer and into the fall, the report concludes.

For example, the percentage of people saying they had been in a room with people who are not members of their household in the last 24 hours jumped from 25 percent in April to 45 percent in October. Reports of people going to a café, bar, or restaurant more than tripled, from 5% in April to 15.9% in November. Similar trends were seen in people reporting going to work, places of worship, gyms and taking mass transit.

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"We let our guard down and it was still lurking. It was still there, right. And COVID-19 came roaring back," Lazer told NPR in an interview.

But the survey did find one bit of good news about people's behavior: Mask-wearing rose for both Democrats and Republicans during the same period and has held steady since then. About 77 percent report very closely adhering to recommendations to wear masks in November, the survey shows.

However, the increase in mask-wearing apparently was not enough to off-set the effects of decreased social distancing and other behaviors, the survey found. Adherence to four behaviors recommended by the CDC — avoiding contact with others, avoiding public/crowded places, frequently washing hands and disinfecting surfaces — all reached all-time lows in October.

The states where people report the lowest levels of social distancing and mask-wearing have been hit hardest by the virus this fall, the analysis shows.

There are other notable differences: Women are more likely to social distance than men. Asian-Americans and African-Americans are more likely to social distance than Whites. And people who are older and more educated are much more likely to social distance than younger, less-educated people.

And there's also a partisan divide. Democrats have consistently scored higher than Republicans on a 100-point scale the researchers developed to measure people's overall behavior. But while Democrats scored just slightly higher in the spring, the gap widened to about 20 points by the fall, the analysis found.

"So that's gone way, way up," Laser says.

But there is some encouraging news in the second report released Tuesday. Significant differences remain between Republicans and Democrats in terms of their support for measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, such as asking people to stay home and avoid gatherings, canceling football games and concerts, requiring businesses to close and limiting restaurants to carry-out only.

Democrats are far more likely to support all of those measures. But even a majority of Republicans say they support many of those same steps, including avoiding gatherings, cancelling sports and entertainment events and even limiting restaurants and domestic travel.

For example, 98 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of Republicans support asking people to stay home and avoid gatherings. Ninety percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans support canceling major sports and entertainment events. And 89 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans support limiting restaurants to take-out only.

"People are generally supportive of taking stronger measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Laser says.

But while 78 percent of Democrats support requiring most businesses to close, only 40 percent of Republicans support that step. Likewise, while 85 percent of Democrats support prohibiting K-12 schools from teaching in person, only 48 percent of Republicans support that move.

But even 57 percent of Republicans agree with 82 percent of Democrats that domestic travel should be restricted, according to the survey.

"Overall it is encouraging to see how many people want to take this seriously," says Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease researcher at Columbia University.

"I just think that we need to have both leadership about what we're doing and how we are going to be confronting this going forward. And we need economic relief for people who are going to be really hurting from this," Shaman says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.