Massachusetts residents remain remarkably steadfast in their support of the difficult isolation measures to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, buoyed by faith in their neighbors and optimism about the future, a new poll by Suffolk University, The Boston Globe, and WGBH News found.
The survey shows widespread support for Governor Charlie Baker and the restrictions he imposed on daily life more than a month ago.
At the same time, the poll indicated that the road back to economic health is likely to be slow and painful, with respondents expressing reluctance about resuming many activities that were once a normal part of life — going to the movies, riding public transportation, and attending sporting events.
More than seven in 10 residents said they won’t be comfortable engaging in those activities when government restrictions and recommendations are lifted, the poll found. Even if there is an effective treatment but not yet a vaccine for COVID-19, a majority of residents would not be comfortable going to a ballpark or riding the subway.
Regardless of what the official guidance is, “I certainly think that we’ll be sheltering in place more,” said Jennifer Gallaspy, who leads the English department at a Boston middle school. She feels nervous at the prospect of her husband taking the T to work again. She figures she won’t be able to see her mother, who lives in Maryland and is immuno-compromised, for quite some time.
“There’s a lot that we don’t know still, and I’d rather err on the side of caution,” said Gallaspy, who lives in Jamaica Plain.
More broadly, the survey paints a picture of a largely unified populace, committed to upholding the social distancing strictures urged by public health officials. This strength of purpose mirrors national polls, which similarly show most Americans support keeping schools and businesses closed, despite the headlines generated by relatively small groups of protesters demanding governors open up their states — including a large protest at the Massachusetts State House on Monday.
A strong majority, 84 percent, of respondents said they approved of the job Baker has done handling the coronavirus outbreak in Massachusetts. And more than 85 percent said they support his decision to extend to May 18 his order that nonessential businesses remain closed and advisory that people stay at home. Both had been set to expire Monday.
Despite the hardships associated with the lockdown, "a lot of people know how dangerous the pandemic is and are willing to trust Governor Baker’s leadership on this to guide the state through it,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, which conducted the poll.
Support for Baker’s actions remains high even as the economic fallout is hitting more Massachusetts residents, particularly younger workers. Nearly half — 46 percent — of respondents said their regular income had been diminished because of the coronavirus crisis, up from 36 percent in a Suffolk-Globe poll five weeks ago.
Workers age 18 to 34 have seen an even more dramatic increase in financial pain, with roughly 52 percent of this cohort reporting lost income, an increase of 18 percentage points from last month. The results point to a dynamic, Paleologos noted, in which those seen as least likely to suffer severe illness if they contract coronavirus are “bearing the brunt of the economic hit.”
Alexander Assad, a 34-year-old social worker, said he doesn’t resent that he’s lost one of his regular sources of income, a contract with a hospital to provide mental health assessments, as a result of the shutdown. He’s able to still pay his bills with his other two jobs, and he believes the social distancing measures are crucial.
“My parents are very important to me. . . . I do feel like if we all went back to work right now, the virus would spread and hurt a lot of people,” said the Fall River resident. “This is going to eventually pass, but I want my loved ones around.”
The commitment to social distancing may carry on long after Baker’s stay-at-home advisory is lifted.
One of the poll’s most significant revelations is how few people say they’d be comfortable returning to many of the activities of normal life once the government lifts restrictions.
Only 42 percent of people said they’d feel comfortable eating out in a restaurant once they’re allowed to again, and a mere 23 percent said they’d feel OK attending a sporting event when that’s permitted. Riding public transportation sparks the most anxiety, with only 18 percent of people saying they’d feel comfortable riding buses, subways, or commuter trains.
Massachusetts residents reported feeling more at ease resuming other activities, including shopping (71 percent), seeing family (72 percent) and friends in person (67 percent), and returning in person to the office or school (58 percent).
Still, the fear many people feel about attending concerts and baseball games, dining out, and riding the T, suggest that the state economy won’t bounce back once social distancing orders are loosened. Many economists have warned that protesters and politicians demanding states reopen society to save the economy are misguided, since the economy will continue to suffer until people feel safe from the virus.
Indeed, large numbers of respondents said they would remain wary of these activities even once there is an effective treatment for COVID-19 but no vaccine. One out of three people said they’d still not be comfortable eating out even after a treatment is found; more than half of people would still not want to go to a sporting event. And riding public transportation would remain uncomfortable for 57 percent of people, even with a treatment.
As in the rest of the country, people’s views of the government’s coronavirus response — headed by the state’s moderate Republican governor — are colored somewhat by partisanship. Just 62 percent of Republicans approve of Baker’s handling of the crisis, compared to 93 percent of Democrats and 84 percent of independents.
Gallaspy, the teacher from Jamaica Plain, is a Democrat who approves of Baker, though she qualified it. She wishes Baker had moved more quickly with his shutdown orders, and in some cases that he had offered mandates rather than a stay-at-home “advisory.”
Still, she said she has appreciated Baker’s “steadiness” and in the last several weeks “his firmness where there are other governors in his party who are champing at the bit to reopen. . . . He is saying: no, we’re not going to until the data tells us we’ve moved enough in the right direction.”
Anthony J. Constantino, 64, of Revere is one Republican who isn’t happy with Baker. He believes Baker’s daily press briefings are “spreading more fear into the people, rather than giving them solutions to the problem.”
Still, he says he’s been following guidelines, such as wearing a mask in public and working from home, saying it is his “responsibility is to comply.”
Altogether, more than 90 percent of residents said they wear a mask at least when inside a public space like a grocery store.
The poll also found overwhelming support for the state Legislature to expand vote-by-mail options for the upcoming Sept. 1 primary and the November general election.
Nearly three out of four respondents said they would support conducting all voting by mail, with the strongest support coming from Democrats and independents.
“They should be sending ballots to every single registered voter in the state,” said Deborah Peeples, 64, of Cambridge. Doing so would ensure everyone can vote regardless of health status, fears of personal safety, and ability to navigate the red tape of requesting a mail-in ballot, she said.
Despite the fear and hardship of the current moment, the poll found Massachusetts residents remain surprisingly optimistic about the future, and resolute in their ability to do what is necessary to weather the crisis.
Two-thirds of residents believe emotionally they can endure their current situation at least a few more months, including 38 percent saying they can go on this way indefinitely, according to the poll, which surveyed 500 Massachusetts residents by landline and cellphone from April 29 to May 2, and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
And a strong majority, 69 percent, say they believe that life will be better a year from now.
“One of the things that’s so hard right now is the uncertainty about the future. I think a year from now we’ll have more information,” said Peeples, a painter by profession. People will have tested different ways of restarting aspects of daily life, and the creative workarounds — so many already blooming around us — will continue, she said.
“After we pass the time of our grief and sadness, and our anxiety wanes a little, things will be better.”