Data Shows Most People Are Taking COVID Very Seriously

Time to give your faith in humanity a booster shot

Two people chatting outside, wearing masks and social distancing. Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

When the news broke that France and Germany would soon be entering a second lockdown in an attempt to reduce spread of the Coronavirus, my friend Naomi quickly took to Facebook .

“The second surge will hit Florida in full force soon too,” she wrote of the state where she lives. “And all because people insisted on having house parties and high school football games.”

She was far from alone in feeling this way. Across all social media platforms, I saw friends, family, and acquaintances scolding their neighbors for lacking sufficient quarantine discipline. A former colleague who now lives in Maine, Daniel, posted something to a similar effect:

“Cases are rising everywhere in the United States. For the love of God people, I know you’re bored and tired, but now is not the time to be selfish. Stay inside and wear a damn mask!”

“Am I the only one still social distancing?” tweeted a friend with a chronic health condition, who has worked from home since before the pandemic. “It seems like everyone on my friends list is out drinking and partying, pretending it’s over.”

Throughout the United States, the importance of personal responsibility in staving off the Coronavirus seems to be a constant refrain. The systems have failed us, so we have been forced to contain the spread ourselves. But an individually-led lockdown without other institutional supports is sadly destined to fail.

As neuroscientist and science communicator Sam Yammine has often written, lockdowns are supposed to be a last line of defense, a hail-mary “Plan E” institutions reach for when Plans A, B, C, and D have come up short and need additional support. Here in the United States, we haven’t had much an institutional Plan A through D, so we have been forced to compensate for the spread of COVID by taking individual action.

A post from Dr. Samantha Yammine’s Instagram earlier this week, explaining that lockdown is supposed to be “Plan E” in fighting a pandemic.

Without measures like forward and backward contact tracing, mandatory quarantines for out-of-state travelers, rent assistance, eviction moratoriums, consistent testing protocols, and a mask mandate, a lockdown is not going to snuff out COVID’s blazing flames. Social distancing slows the rate of spread and can help keep hospitals from getting overloaded, which does save lives — but it’s not enough to prevent multiple major spikes in cases, particular when people are forced to return to work and school.

When the positive test rate inevitably spikes, individuals get blamed for not adhering perfectly to the rules. But the problem is that the full responsibility for containing the Coronavirus should have never been on individual people’s shoulders in the first place. Despite what we’ve been told, if we really look at the data, we can see that most people are adhering closely to social distancing protocols and handling COVID responsibly. Tempted as we may be to scold our friends and neighbors for failing to take the pandemic seriously, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that our fellow community members are mostly as scared and cautious as we are.

Most of the data I’ll be discussing below was cited in James Surowiecki’s superbly well-researched piece about “demand shock” in Marker. In the article, Surowiecki points to several key data points showing that Americans are for the most part completely uninterested in going to bars, movie theaters, restaurants, or amusement parks, and are avoiding public spaces and non-essential businesses by choice, even when such things are open and available.

While this lack of consumption is a major blow to the economy, it’s also a deeply reassuring sign of how responsible and science-minded most people are really being. And as the number of COVID cases continues to surge, I think we all need a little booster shot to our faith in humanity right now. So let’s dive in:

Evidence that a majority people are taking COVID seriously and behaving very responsibly:

1. Disney World’s Reopening Flopped

In his article, Surowiecki recounts how Disney carefully planned out the reopening of their theme parks. Compared to Universal Studios and Six Flags , which reopened relatively early into the pandemic, Disney took its time waiting for the opportune moment to welcome visitors back in. When that time finally came around, it was announced with great fanfare. Promotional materials stressed the mouse’s new sanitization and social distancing protocols, as well as the reduced capacity of the parks and resorts. Initially, there was consumer demand to return to Disney. Then the number of COVID cases in Florida spiked.

As Surowiecki writes:

…as reopening day approached, the number of Covid-19 cases in Florida began to rise, and in response people started doing something Disney visitors almost never do: cancelling their reservations. In the three months that have followed, customer traffic has stayed well below where Disney hoped it would be.

Despite all their strategic, slow reopening and their enthusiastic performance of hygiene theater, Disney was not able to entice visitors back into their parks. They’ve been forced to reduce their operating hours and cut their workforce as a result. From a economic standpoint, this is frightening — but from a virus-containment perspective, it is incredibly encouraging. Even devoted Disney superfans watched the infection rate data, and let it inform their decisions. When cases spiked, they chose of their own volition to stay home.

2. People Are Avoiding All Amusement Parks

Surowiecki’s article also points to data showing that attendance at all amusement parks throughout the US has been abysmal this year. Even though attending an amusement park is an outdoor activity, and despite the fact that many locations have been open all summer long, most people were judicious and stayed away. Surowiecki writes:

…Attendance has been well below expectations — at Six Flags, for instance, it’s been around 25%–30% of capacity.

Six Flags has conducted some internal research on their dwindling attendance numbers; CEO Michael Spanos reported that many former Six Flag attendees are uninterested in visiting the parks until there is a vaccine available. Yet again, the American public was provided an opportunity to leave lockdown, yet the data shows a majority elected not to.

3. People Are Avoiding Restaurants

A ban on indoor dining is one of the most contentious COVID-containment options on the table. Here in Chicago, mayor Lori Lightfoot has repeatedly resisted imposing a ban on it, insisting that most dining establishments are following safe protocols and desperately need the revenue. But there really isn’t that much revenue available — because a majority of people are terrified to eat out. Per Surowiecki:

“A recent survey by research firm Datassentials, for instance, found that 58% of those surveyed described themselves as “uncomfortable” with dining indoors, and 36% described themselves as “very uncomfortable.””

If you add up those two percentage points, you get a whopping 94%. That’s right, 94% of Americans surveyed are uncomfortable dining indoors. This is very sensible — COVID has been clearly demonstrated to spread among unmasked patrons eating indoors. In one high-profile case, an infected Starbucks customer passed the virus to a whopping 27 other people, all fellow customers who weren’t wearing masks. None of Starbucks’ masked baristas wound up infected.

This points to the vulnerability inherent to indoor dining — no matter how many times surfaces are disinfected and how spread out the tables are, eating requires taking your mask off, which vastly increases the risk of viral spread. Most people understand this. So they aren’t going to restaurants.

4. People Are Avoiding Gyms

Like amusement parks and restaurants, gyms have been open at reduced capacity throughout the United States for many months. Yet most gym membership holders aren’t risking coming in. Surowiecki writes:

..a recent survey of 5,000 gym-goers by RunRepeat found that 70% haven’t returned and 43% said they had no plans to go back.

70% is a pretty sizable majority. Just like indoor dining, attending a socially distanced gym has often been touted by public and business officials as worthy trade-off of risk and reward. Though exercising means breathing more heavily (and thus spreading more viral particles), and though many gyms allow patrons to go maskless when actively exercising, officials have sometimes claimed the physical health benefits of staying active makes them worth the risk. The American public, it seems, isn’t so convinced. There was a huge spike in demand for home workout equipment when lockdown began, and these low gym attendance numbers show most people would prefer to keep exercising at home for the time being.

5. Movie Theaters Are Empty

When the Christopher Nolan film Tenet was set to be released in August, movie theaters were poised to make a comeback. Lockdown restrictions had been eased across most of the country, and a pivot from digital film releases back to theatrical ones was planned. National ad campaigns welcomed theater patrons back into the dark, comforting confines of AMC and Regal Cinemas. But no one came. The film was a flop, particularly in the United States, where COVID cases were hitting their second spike.

This fundamentally changed the film and theater industries’ plans for the rest of the year. Surowiecki writes:

The hope had been that Tenet would prove people were ready to go back to the movies. Instead, it proved most weren’t. Hollywood studios concluded there was no point in trying to release big films for the rest of the year, and pulled their tentpole films from the fall schedule.

Yet again, consumer caution won out over a corporate cash-grab.

6. People Opted to Socially Distance Before They Had To

In the U.S., government officials were slow to adopt lockdown and shelter-in-place measures as a response to the Coronavirus. However, research shows most people were actually quite quick to take action on an individual level. As one international report found:

People responded much more strongly to early informational events, such as emergency declarations and announcements of the first local COVID-19 cases and deaths, than they did to orders from authorities. For instance, mobility declined substantially in all states, even in states without stay-at-home orders.

Now, other data shows pretty conclusively that mandated and enforced lockdowns are far more effective than relying on individuals to make the “right” choice. This is especially true when choosing to isolate has significant financial costs associated with it: if we want people to stay home and miss work, they ought to be compensated for it. However, if the spike in COVID cases has you feeling down on humanity’s collective responsibility and compassion, let these statistics be a balm: a majority of people chose to lock themselves down long before they were required to.

7. Historical Data Shows People Were Responsible During the Spanish Flu, Too

After observing that most people began socially distancing before they were required to, Surowiecki notes such pro-social behavior has a strong historical precedent:

During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, businesses stayed open in most cities, yet economic activity still fell sharply, and contemporary accounts suggest that the economy only started to rebound when people became less afraid of catching the flu.

His observations also track with a report published in the journal Public Health Reports, which describes how health officials in the early 20th century helped contain the Spanish Flu by encouraging the public to voluntarily comply with lockdown measures. Though cities that imposed mandatory lockdowns controlled the spread of the flu far better than those that did not, it was also vitally important to motivate and facilitate individuals to make the “right” choice.

In his Marker article, Surowiecki points out that even after the Spanish Flu began to ebb, most people continued social distancing. It took a couple of years for consumers to truly feel safe returning to pre-pandemic levels of activity. This also tracks with industry research being conducted now, showing that many people are uninterested in returning to concerts, theaters, and other large public-events until a vaccine is widely available.

Throughout his piece, Surowiecki focuses on the negative economic impact of demand shock. He sees the dearth of consumer demand as worrisome, and frequently points out the business closures, bankruptcies, reduced work hours, and diminished GDP that go along with them. These are all valid concerns; after all, demand shock has a massive material impact on Americans’ livelihoods. Workers throughout the United States desperately need a second, more substantial COVID relief package, one that will allow people to safely socially distance for as long as is necessarily, without any risk of winding up evicted and without healthcare.

But despite how economically concerning all this data is, I can’t help but see a silver lining in it, one that is rapidly rejuvenating my faith in humanity. Demand shock signals that despite repeated institutional failures on the part of our governments, and in the face of enormous corporate negligence, most people are nonetheless choosing to do the right thing. Far being reckless and impulsive, the average person is scared as hell of COVID, and rightly taking precautions to protect themselves and their families.

Restaurants may be open, schools and offices might be up and running, and theaters, gyms, and amusement parks may have opened their doors, but most people aren’t interested in taking the risk and leaving lockdown. Though our public institutions have failed us, and have doomed us to another spike in Coronavirus cases, individual people are doing all they can to reduce the damage. We are living in bleak times, so I’m grateful to have this

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