Will Americans follow social distancing measures?

As states begin to ease restrictions, only half of Americans think their fellow citizens will heed social distancing guidelines.

Catherine Morris
Jun 5, 2020 · 4 min read

What you need to know:

  • Americans are on the move again, with the most activity concentrated in Southern and Midwestern states. Cities are newly active during the week plus of protests in response to the killing of George Floyd.
  • Americans are divided on the question of how well individuals and businesses will follow continuing social distancing measures, with 49% predicting that “most” will follow the guidelines.
  • While there is no clear consensus on how guidelines should be enforced, the most popular option is community pressure. Few support more punitive options, like jail time or house arrest.

Deep Dive:

It’s official. Americans are out and about again. With all 50 states easing or eliminating social distancing restrictions to at least some degree, the total lockdown is over in many parts of the country.

Still, it’s technically not a free-for-all just yet. Some social distancing measures are still in force across the nation, as is the threat of the coronavirus. Though the numbers of new coronavirus cases are declining in some areas, infections and deaths will likely continue to rise in some states. Epidemiologists warn that flouting remaining social distancing guidelines now could lead to a resurgence in cases, with deaths potentially rising beyond the latest Centers for Disease Control projection of 115,000 by mid-June.

For now, the majority of Americans support common sense social distancing measures, such as wearing face coverings while in public and requiring people to stay six feet apart in stores and restaurants, according to a recent Public Agenda/USA Today Ipsos Hidden Common Ground survey. Despite that broad support, not all Americans have full faith in their fellow citizens to heed the measures as communities reopen. Just half (49%) think that most individuals and businesses will follow social distancing measures if the economy opens up again.

In reality, the complete quarantining of individuals is a thing of the past, with a sharp drop-off in social distancing from April to May. Americans living in the South, Midwest and rural, remote parts of the country are now social distancing the least, according to location data collected by the Ipsos Biosurveillance Atlas, tracking with states’ patterns of reopening. Florida, Georgia and Texas, were some of the first to open up for business again. Those three states, along with Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, are some of the states with the steepest drop-off in social distancing in recent weeks.

The sudden resurgence of activity will be doubly impacted by the massive protests nationwide sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers, inspiring waves of protests in hundreds of cities across the nation, activity not yet captured by the Biosurveillance Atlas.

So with absolute distancing ending, slowing the spread of coronavirus will come down to regular people getting into the habit of protecting themselves and behaving in ways that limits the spread of the disease. Many localities have already put in place guidelines on what people and businesses should do to prevent new outbreaks with things like limits on the number of people allowed in commercial spaces or rules about mask wearing in public. Again, Americans are split on whether their countrymen and women will follow these social distancing rules.

Following the lines of which states have already been most active, Americans living in the South and Midwest are less likely to think that others will follow social distancing guidelines. In the South and Midwest, 43% and 47% respectively think that “most” Americans would follow social distancing measures, compared to 55% and 54% of those living in the Northeast and West respectively.

With these guidelines, there comes the more challenging question of how to ensure people actually follow them. There is limited consensus around this, though the most popular means of enforcement is simple social pressure, with a plurality of Americans saying that they support “community members encouraging or pressuring people to comply” with guidelines. Just a tiny fraction say they would be in favor of jail time or house arrest for people who do not follow social distancing measures.

Partisanship influences how Americans view enforcing social distancing measures, with Republicans tending to favor self-determination on some questions and Democrats police involvement. When asked how to enforce prohibitions on gatherings of 10 or more people, 39% of Republicans said it should be up to individuals to decide, while 40% of Democrats said that police should be empowered to issue a ticket or fine. Responses were similar across party lines on other measures, such as wearing a face covering in public or self-quarantining for 14 days after coming into contact with the virus.

America’s months-long experience with lockdown and social distancing has come to an abrupt end, first shuddering to a halt in states that rushed to reopen to get people back to work. Then came more than a week of protests against institutional racism and police violence, bringing people together by the thousands in hundreds of cities nationwide. What this means for the spread of the virus, and how people are prepared to try to control that spread, is an open question.

Ipsos Public Affairs

Presenting original analysis of public opinion research on…

Catherine Morris

Written by

Data journalist @Ipsos covering trends in public opinion around society, COVID and politics.

Ipsos Public Affairs

Presenting original analysis of public opinion research on politics and society from the world’s third-largest market research firm, with a particular focus on the 2020 United States elections. For more information, visit: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-and-polls/overview

Catherine Morris

Written by

Data journalist @Ipsos covering trends in public opinion around society, COVID and politics.

Ipsos Public Affairs

Presenting original analysis of public opinion research on politics and society from the world’s third-largest market research firm, with a particular focus on the 2020 United States elections. For more information, visit: https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-and-polls/overview

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