Americans see the coronavirus pandemic primarily as a health crisis rather than a financial one, but the government's role in fixing economic fallout is an increasingly political issue, a new poll has found.
The Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos poll released Friday found Americans see the crisis as a bigger threat to their physical health than to their mental health or financial well-being.
Most of those surveyed support a slow easing of social distancing restrictions aimed at saving lives and slowing the virus' spread like Eva Coffee who lives in Booneville, Arkansas. She said many people in her family including her 90-year-old mother have pre-existing conditions and she worries they won't survive if they get COVID-19.
"It's a lot more important to protect people's health," said Coffee, 63, who is an Independent. "If there’s not people then the economy’s going to die anyway."
Still, disagreement over the governments' priorities has grown since a survey in late March. There's a growing number of Americans who believe economic recovery should be the government's top priority – a shift primarily led by Republicans.
"They should prioritize the economy because if they don’t there will be no country," said Long Island resident Joe Patatino, 79, who identifies as politically conservative.
The poll, conducted May 22-26 on behalf of Public Agenda and USA TODAY, surveyed about 1,000 U.S. adults as a part of the Hidden Common Ground initiative, which aims to examine issues that divide America and potential solutions. The online poll has a credibility interval, akin to a margin of error, of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Here are four key takeaways from the survey:
Growing number of Republicans say economy should be top priority
Most Americans (62%) believe the government’s priority should be preventing the virus from spreading, but that number has dropped 10 percentage points from a March survey. The share of Republicans who said the government should prioritize keeping the virus from spreading fell dramatically from 64% in March to 41% in May, while the number of Democrats remained stable.
A majority of Americans believe the coronavirus is a threat to the global economy and to the United States, although the perceived threat to the stock market has decreased. Most Americans (77%) agreed that the nation should reboot the economy "slowly and carefully to avoid spreading the virus."
Brian Sparks of Clio, Michigan, said he is unhappy with the restrictions set by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and believes they hurt the economy and local businesses.
Whitmer relaxed some restrictions of the sweeping stay-at-home order that has been in place since March, but she extended the order to June 12 and her state of emergency declaration to June 19. Social gatherings of 10 people or less are now allowed, and retail businesses that sell goods can reopen for appointment-only shopping.
"I just feel the economy in general is weak and that it needs to be stimulated," said Sparks, who works in retail.
Most believe protests endanger lives
In April, demonstrators drove thousands of vehicles to Michigan's state Capitol to protest the state's stay-at-home order. Similar protests also erupted in Kentucky, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Most Americans (69%) agree that the people protesting to reopen states are endangering the lives of others. Only a small minority (16%) say they have expressed their opinions about the pandemic by protesting or contacting elected officials.
Coronavirus protest:Protests draw thousands over state stay-at-home orders during pandemic
Only about one-third of Americans agree that restrictions and closures have been too severe, including Sparks, the retail worker from Michigan. He does not believe social distancing measures will help stop the spread of the virus but said he would never participate in a protest against them like those in his home state.
"I thought they were stupid and unnecessary," Sparks said. "In this time of crisis we don’t need all that."
Although Patatino, the Long Island resident, said he is considered high-risk because he has high blood pressure and COPD, he agreed that social distancing measures are "overkill at this point." But, he said, he is not part of the protest movement because he believes people should be able to make their own choices.
"I don't believe in harassing anybody," said Patatino, a retired lending officer at Chase Bank. "You make your own decision."
Strong support for public health measures – even masks
Conflicts have erupted at businesses when people chose not to wear masks or otherwise violate Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations or an establishment's rules. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have also traded barbs about wearing masks in public.
But a majority of Americans support wearing face coverings in public (77%) and public health measures including self-quarantining for 14 days if they are exposed to the coronavirus (88%), plus requiring social distancing in stores, restaurants and other businesses as they reopen (76%).
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Nearly as many support the ideas that elderly and other at-risk people should stay home while restrictions on young, healthy people are lifted (61%) and that schools should prepare for online learning for the upcoming school year (62%).
The most politically divisive measure however is restricting gatherings to 10 people until there is a treatment or vaccine. A majority of Americans (64%) support that idea, but there is a 29-percentage-point difference between Republicans (49%) and Democrats (78%). Independents fall in the middle (62%).
More Americans are leaving home:Social distancing in US drops significantly from height of COVID-19 pandemic, poll finds
Very few Americans support incarceration or house arrest for those who violate social distancing guidelines. Depending on the measure in question, about a third favor using social pressure to encourage social distancing. The rest believe either that individuals and organizations should decide for themselves or that the police should ticket or fine those who do not comply.
Lynn Pickell, 65, called precautions like social distancing and face masks "brilliant" and suggested those who don't adhere to the rules should be punished.
Batya Swift Yasgur, 61, of Teaneck, New Jersey, agrees that it's important to practice social distancing, wear a mask in public and regularly sanitize your hands and surfaces, and that there should be some sort of punishment for those who fail to do so.
"It's not unreasonable for some type of fine, perhaps," said Yasgur, a freelance medical writer and counselor. "I definitely don’t think people should be jailed."
Americans are supporting one another, optimistic about their communities
Since the pandemic begin, there have been viral stories of people performing random acts of kindness and finding creative ways to honor health care workers on the front lines.
Three-quarters of Americans say they have supported local businesses, and about half (48%) say they have publicly expressed support for health care workers. About four in 10 have checked in on elderly or sick neighbors, and almost as many have donated to help others in their community (37%), a slight increase from a Hidden Common Ground survey in March.
The numbers indicated that despite enduring weeks of lockdown and isolation, Americans have continued to step up to support their community. Fewer (13%) say they have asked for or received help from others in their community.
Yasgur, the medical writer from New Jersey, said she has been trying to buy groceries from her local health food store and has been checking in on neighbors she knows might be lonely.
"No one should really be in this alone," Yasgur said.
As states begin to reopen, almost half of Americans (48%) believe their community will suffer in the short term but will recover in the long term. More believe their community will emerge stronger than before (15%) than those who say their community will never recover (6%).
Researchers said that suggests Americans have a "cautious optimism" about their community's recovery from COVID-19. When asked about recovery, Yasgur said members of her community in Teaneck have banded together during the pandemic, but she worries many local stores may not survive.
"I really hope they can, and I really hope the community will be supportive," she said.
Follow N'dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg