One year ago, on the eve of the eventful day that signaled the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — March 11, 2020 — a plurality of Americans (44 percent) said the threat of the virus had been “exaggerated,” according to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted at the time. More people said their peers were “overreacting” (36 percent) than said they were “behaving appropriately” (30 percent). Just 6 percent said they had worn a mask. And nearly everyone (88 percent) predicted that fewer than 10,000 Americans would ultimately die from the disease.
Now, 12 tragic months later, with more than half a million U.S. lives lost to COVID-19, Yahoo News and YouGov repolled many of those same respondents and found that few have emerged unscathed from the pandemic — particularly in communities of color.
According to the survey of 1,629 U.S. adults, which was conducted March 4-8, 2021, nearly two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) say they have either contracted COVID-19 themselves or seen a close friend or family member infected. More than a third (37 percent) say they have seen a close friend or family member hospitalized, or been hospitalized themselves. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) say they have suffered the death of a close friend or family member because of the disease.
And in a sobering sign of the virus’s unequal impact, the number of white Americans who say they've been exposed to COVID-19 hospitalization (33 percent) and death (23 percent) is far lower than the number of Black Americans (47 percent/34 percent) or Hispanic Americans (52 percent/45 percent) who say the same.
Looking back, it’s remarkable how quickly the national consciousness shifted after March 11. In last March's initial Yahoo News/YouGov poll, just 29 percent of Americans said there had been coronavirus cases in their community; by the time Yahoo News and YouGov polled again two weeks later, that number shot up to 60 percent. Over the same period, the share of Americans who said the threat of COVID-19 had been exaggerated fell by half, to 22 percent. A full 62 percent suddenly said the opposite.
Personal behavior changed rapidly, too. Between March 11 and March 26 the number of Americans who stopped shaking hands rose from 28 percent to 61 percent. The number who stockpiled food or other supplies rose from 15 percent to 31 percent. The number who avoided crowded public places rose from 37 percent to 70 percent. Meanwhile, 57 percent of Americans stopped eating at restaurants, 67 percent stopped leaving the house except for essential needs and 63 percent stayed 6 feet away from other people in public places.
Yet even then political divisions were emerging that continue to define America’s pandemic response today.
Among Republicans, 58 percent initially believed that the threat of COVID was exaggerated; one year later, a nearly identical majority (57 percent) feels the same way. Meanwhile, the share of Democrats who consider the threat of COVID exaggerated has consistently fallen — from 29 percent on March 11, 2020, to 12 percent two weeks later, to just 6 percent today.
This fundamental disagreement over the seriousness and severity of the pandemic persists across every aspect of public opinion. Among those who have not yet been vaccinated, Democrats (54 percent) are nearly twice as likely as Republicans (29 percent) to say they will get a shot “as soon as it’s available” to them, while Republicans (47 percent) are nearly three times as likely as Democrats (17 percent) to say they will “never” get vaccinated.
Today, 83 percent of Democrats say they are either very worried or somewhat worried about “the newer, potentially more contagious variants of COVID-19 now spreading in the U.S.”; just 38 percent of Republicans say the same. A mere 6 percent of Democrats say they wear a mask in public only “some of the time” or “never”; among Republicans, that number is six times as high (36 percent). And while 89 percent of Democrats say masks should be mandatory in public, two-thirds of Republicans now say the opposite.
Nowhere is this partisan divide more striking — or more relevant right now — than on the subject of reopening.
With cases down from their post-holiday highs, red states such as Texas and Mississippi have recently ended their mask mandates and reopened businesses at full capacity. But while a clear majority of Americans (57 percent) say they disapprove of this decision at a time when variants are spreading and most of the country remains unvaccinated, an even larger majority of Republicans (62 percent) say they approve.
Overall, the new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found signs of growing optimism among Americans, with the share who say they’ve received at least one vaccine shot ticking up from 17 percent to 23 percent over the last two weeks and the share who say “the worst of the pandemic is behind us” rising nearly as much (from 37 percent to 41 percent). A plurality of Americans (49 percent) say “now is the right time” to reopen schools; a majority (52 percent) say “now is the right time” to reopen indoor bars and restaurants at partial capacity.
Yet after a year of COVID-19, most now recognize the need to proceed cautiously. Late last March, 59 percent of Americans told Yahoo News and YouGov that Easter, which fell on April 12, would be too soon to “open the country up for business,” even though then-President Donald Trump had repeatedly said he hoped to do just that — a number that parallels the 57 percent who now oppose the full reopenings in Texas and Mississippi. Last March, just 20 percent said Easter would be “about right.”
At the time, Republicans were 24 percent more likely than Democrats to say Easter was “about right” for reopening — and 33 percent less likely to say Easter was “too soon.” Since April 12, 2020, more than 496,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.
The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,629 U.S. adults interviewed online from March 4 to 8, 2021. The respondents all participated in a prior Yahoo News survey conducted either March 10-11, 2020, or March 25-26, 2020, and were contacted to participate. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or non-vote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel. The margin of error is approximately 3.4 percent.
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