Polling shows Americans see COVID-19 as a crisis, don’t think US is overreacting

Doug Hassebroek shops with a protective mask during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., March 25, 2020. Picture taken March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

As soon as the novel coronavirus began spreading across the country, some pundits—and on occasion President Trump—alleged that health experts and the media were exaggerating the problem and that policy makers were responding with measures that the American people would not tolerate. The high-quality survey research published in recent days makes it clear that the people don’t agree. They believe that we face a national emergency and that all the steps taken during the past few weeks are reasonable and proportionate. As of now, moreover, there is no evidence—none—that these measures have pushed the people past their breaking-point into non-compliance or revolt.

Here’s a summary of the key findings from three wide-ranging surveys conducted by Economist/YouGov, the Pew Research Center, and the Washington Post.

The threat

Eighty-one percent of the people say that the Covid-19 pandemic has created a “national emergency” (Economist/YouGov). Sixty-six percent believe that it is a “major threat” to the health of the U.S. population, 88% say that it is a major threat to the economy (Pew), and 57% say that the country is “at war” with the coronavirus (Economist/YouGov). Only 3 in 10 say that the threat has been exaggerated for political reasons (Economist/YouGov).

About three-quarters of Americans are concerned about an outbreak in their communities (Economist/YouGov). Nearly 7 in 10 express the fear that they or a member of their family will catch the disease, and about two-thirds say that the disease will push the U.S. into a recession or that we are already in one. One-third of all households have already experienced layoffs or pay cuts, and the impact has been even higher for lower-income and less-educated individuals (Pew).

Individual and family responses

The spread of the disease has created major disruptions of daily life. The people report that they are maintaining distance from others (93%), staying at home as much as possible (91%), staying away from restaurants and bars (88%), washing their hands more often than usual (82%), stocking up on food and household supplies (61%), and canceling travel plans (53%) (Washington Post). By contrast, only 26% are willing to admit that they bought extra toilet paper (Economist/YouGov).

Public policy responses

The surveys find a remarkably high degree of support for the measures public officials have mandated in response to Covid-19, even the measures that have massively disrupted daily life. Table 1 summarizes the answers to questions posed in the Economist/YouGov poll:

Table 1: Are these steps overreactions? (%)
  Yes No
Cancelling visits to nursing homes 18 76
Closing public schools and universities 18 74
Limiting travel 17 75
Telling returnees from overseas to self-quarantine for 14 days 19 76
Closing bars and restaurants 19 74
Suspending professional sports 21 73
Ordering lockdowns and sheltering at home 21 67
Source: Economist/YouGov

The Pew Research Center posed this issue differently but found similar responses, as summarized in Table 2.

Table 2: Are these steps necessary? (%)
Restricting international travel 95
Cancelling major sports and entertainment events 91
Closing K-12 schools 89
Avoiding groups of more than 10 people 87
Limiting restaurants to carry-out only 85
Requiring most businesses to close 71
Requiring most businesses to close 70
Source: Pew Research Center

In general, 40% or more of Americans believe that we are underreacting to the Covid-19 threat, compared to 25-30% who believe that we are overreacting and about one-quarter who think that our reaction has been about right (Pew, Economist/YouGov). The country is split down the middle on the effectiveness of our efforts to contain the coronavirus, with 47% saying that the battle is going well and 46% that it is going badly. Only 4 in 10 Americans think that we were adequately prepared for this crisis, while 6 in 10 say that we were not (Economist/YouGov).


When it comes to the division of responsibility for addressing this crisis, public opinion presents an apparent paradox. On the one hand, a plurality of Americans (43%) say that the federal government should be in charge, compared to 27% for the states and just 9% for localities (Economist/YouGov). On the other hand, they express more confidence in state and local officials than they do in the federal government. Table 3 helps explain these apparently contradictory findings.

Table 3: Who is doing a good or excellent job fighting the coronavirus? (%)
Public health officials 79
State and local officials 70
State and local residents 63
The media 54
President Trump 48
Source: Economist/YouGov

At the federal level, in short, the American people seem to be saying that they would like people like Anthony Fauci to have a bigger role shaping the federal response and Donald Trump a smaller role. They are unlikely to get their wish.

The future

The people’s expectations for the near future are sober. Few believe that we will be getting back to normal by President Trump’s target date of Easter Sunday. Just 23% think that the current situation will end within one month, compared to 46% who expect it to persist for several months and a pessimistic 14% who believe that it will continue for a year or more (Economist/YouGov).

Based on these finding, in sum, the American people are backing an increasingly robust response to the COVID-19 epidemic, even when it limits their customary liberties, they expect this restrictive regime to continue for at least another few months, and they seem prepared to tolerate it—for how long, nobody really knows.

If the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) succeeds in keeping most people employed (even if they cannot go to work) and saves most businesses from bankruptcy, the likelihood of sustained public support for tough public health measures will increase—especially if these measures begin to show visible effects in local communities. But if the people do not see measurable progress within a reasonable period, all bets are off.