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Social distancing in US drops significantly from height of COVID-19 pandemic, poll finds

Joey Garrison
USA TODAY
The News Herald

WASHINGTON — More Americans are leaving their homes than at any point in weeks.

The number of Americans who say they are social distancing amid the nation's coronavirus pandemic – although still a majority – has dropped by 17 percentage points since late March as several states have ended stay-at-home orders, according to a new Gallup poll released Friday.

But the drop isn't just from individuals who live in states where they can now dine in restaurants, get haircuts at barbershops or visit parks. More people in states that still have stay-at-home restrictions are also no longer social distancing.

"It's certainly in those states," Jeffrey Jones, senior editor for the Gallup Poll, said of those that have reopened, "but it's also in the states that aren't loosening their restrictions as well."

Fifty-eight percent of Americans said they are either completely (17%) or mostly (41%) isolating themselves, the poll found, down from a high of 75% who said they were between March 30 and April 4 and 68% who said they were April 20-26.

The steady decline returns the numbers back to the level before the majority of states implemented stay-at-home orders in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The poll, conducted through interviews of 4,159 U.S. adults May 4-10, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

It comes as several states, including Texas, Florida and Georgia, have ended stay-at-home orders and started to reopen their economies. President Donald Trump has increasingly hinged his reelection hopes on reopening the nation's economy, including giving his blessing to protesters who demanded the end of their state's orders.

Of the 21 states that as of May 4 lacked stay-at-home orders, 51% of survey respondents said they were either completely or mostly self-isolating. That's down from 64% in these same states two weeks ago.

Among states that have maintained stay-at-home restrictions – which includes New York, California and Massachusetts – the share of people isolating has decreased to 64%, compared with 71% during the period of April 20-26.

Jones pointed to several factors to explain the changing behavior in states with orders: the "political aspect" that's played out with protests and resistance; social distancing fatigue; and new allowances for some citizens to return to work or other activities despite other restrictions.

It also comes as the number of confirmed cases and daily deaths in the U.S. has finally started to flatten nationally – even though the number of deaths has exceeded 85,000, and some experts predict another 60,000 deaths by August.

"In a lot of these states, even the worst ones, the curve has flattened a little bit," Jones said, "so maybe people are feeling a little braver about going out than they used to, seeing what's happened in the course of the disease."

Gender and political party remain top factors on whether a person is more likely to isolate.

Women are more likely to be practicing social distancing, with 67% saying they are isolating themselves, compared with 49% of men. In the past two weeks, the percentage of men social distancing has declined by 14 points, while it has decreased only 7 points among women.

Seventy-two percent of Democrats said they are social distancing, while less than half of Republicans, 45%, said they are. Fifty-seven percent of independents self-reported social distancing.

With social distancing on the decline, more Americans are also going to public places, according to the poll.

Forty-nine percent said they had gone to the grocery store in the last 24 hours, compared with 43% on April 26. Thirty percent had gone to their place of work, up from 26%. Nineteen percent had visited another person's house, an increase from 13%.

The number of people who said they had visited a restaurant in the past 24 hours, however, has remained flat from two weeks ago at 13%.