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UVa survey: Area residents reluctant to end COVID-19 countermeasures

Two months into self-quarantines, social distancing and the shutdown of non-essential businesses, two-thirds of Central Virginians surveyed say they not only support stay-at-home orders but are hesitant to open up the state too soon.

But those whose jobs do not allow them to work remotely are more likely to favor opening the state for business on a quicker timeline, according to the survey.

The survey of nearly 700 area residents by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia shows people are hesitant to jump back into social situations, even if some anti-COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.

The respondents were asked a series of questions between April 28 and May 5 about whether they would engage in activities under various restrictions and more favorable health conditions, such as fewer deaths, fewer cases, widespread testing and effective treatments for the virus short of a vaccine.

“One of the major takeaways is that respondents are largely supportive of the current social distancing restrictions in place,” said Kara Fitzgibbon, director of the Center for Survey Research. “It may be surprising to some that, even in the scenario of the stay-at-home orders being lifted and improved conditions surrounding the spread and mortality caused by COVID-19, residents are going to remain cautious and continue maintaining social distances in many ways.”

“I was very surprised about how cautious people were regarding lifting restrictions,” said Tom Guterbock, academic director at the Center for Survey Research. “They are getting out of the house and going to the grocery store, walking their pets and picking food up from restaurants, but they are hesitant to travel to other states and are opposed to opening the state up for tourists from other states.”

According to the results, in the last seven days, an estimated 81% of households have bought groceries; 70% have walked pets or exercised out-of-doors; 52% have picked up orders from restaurants; 44% have left to go to work; and 35% have shopped for household goods or home improvement supplies.

The study shows residents are almost evenly divided about whether they approve of people traveling out of the state, but are overwhelming opposed to opening the state up to tourists from outside of Virginia.

When asked if they would engage in certain activities with the lockdown lifted and conditions improved, fewer than 20% of respondents were willing to travel outside by air or train or participate in religious services, eat inside a restaurant, or attend an event at an indoor or outdoor arena without social distancing measures in place.

Even with social distancing measures and an improved medical outlook, only about 45% of respondents indicated a willingness to engage in those social activities.

“Even under more favorable conditions, people remained quite reluctant,” Guterbock said. “They’re cautious about returning to their normal, pre-virus activities and are even cautious about those activities for which social distancing is provided.”

Guterbock noted that the survey said people were feeling economic impacts from the shutdown. Still, the majority of people were more concerned with public health than personal wealth.

“People were in pretty clear agreement, with two-thirds saying it’s important to continue to keep people at home,” he said. “Those who are unable to continue to work from home were more likely to be in favor of easing restrictions.”

BeHeardCVA is the first survey panel in the state and is designed to listen to residents of the city of Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson.

Residents may sign up to participate in a variety of surveys sponsored by the center through BeHeardCVA.

In the most recent survey, questions were formulated with input from more than 300 participants with suggestions from several local nonprofits, government agencies and health officials.

Topics included COVID-19 impacts on economic conditions; mental health; physical health and health care; and the effectiveness of government policies. More results will be released later this week.

According to Fitzgibbon, participants in the survey were recruited through “probability and non-probability” methods.

“Some of our panel members were randomly phoned and invited to join BeHeard out of the blue. Another large portion of the panel was invited through a scientific, randomly drawn mail-out to households in the region,” she said.

“Because of the importance for BeHeardCVA to be inclusive and serve as a platform for all of the voices in our community, we keep the door open to any resident who wants to join,” Fitzgibbon said. “So, in addition to our probability-based recruitment, we also have panel members who have signed up because they talked with us at a community event, or heard about the panel from a friend or coworker, and others read about BeHeardCVA in The Daily Progress.”

To address possible bias in survey results, the results are weighted to match demographic characteristics of the region. The researchers also have analyzed the results to show how different demographics or circumstances affect responses.

“For example, we see that respondents who have a job that they are unable to perform from home prioritize re-opening businesses at a higher rate,” Fitzgibbon said.

Guterbock said the results show that people will be reluctant to jump back into the lives they led prior to the virus coming to Virginia.

“The results imply that the new normal is not going to be the same and, for some businesses, recovering will take a long time,” he said.

“I think the question on many people’s minds is, when will life return to normal,” Fitzgibbon said. “The BeHeardCVA results suggest that return to normalcy is not happening anytime soon.”


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