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If you’ve let up a little on being as strict about social distancing, you’re not the only one

A sidewalk sign in the North End indicated a safe social distance.
A sidewalk sign in the North End indicated a safe social distance.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

If you’ve let up a little on being strict about social distancing, you’re not the only one.

As Massachusetts has gradually opened up its economy, its residents also appear to be relaxing a bit when it comes to being around other people, a recent poll and interviews show.

Roughly 44 percent of Massachusetts residents said they are being “very strict” about social distancing according to a poll conducted June 18-21 by Suffolk University for a consortium of media outlets, a decline of about 25 percentage points from early May when 69 percent of people described themselves as strict social distancers.

At the same time, those who say they are being “pretty strict” about social distancing rose to 38 percent from 24 percent, an increase of 14 points, over the same time period.

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These shifts, along with interviews with more than a dozen poll respondents and other residents, indicate that plummeting infection and death rates in Massachusetts have left some residents feeling safer than they did at the height of the pandemic here, enough to venture out of the house and take some small steps toward normalcy. The June poll surveyed 500 Massachusetts residents and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

Yet overwhelmingly, people described themselves as still on guard and taking numerous precautions. With a drumbeat of bad news from other states, and warnings about a potential second wave, residents said they remain risk averse.

In interviews, people said they were socializing a bit outside their immediate households, but sticking to backyards and other outdoor spaces. They’ve mostly stopped wiping down groceries and leaving packages on the porch for a few days.

A few had ventured to restaurants, but most said they felt comfortable only outdoors. The unalloyed consensus: Masks are still a must.

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“I’m not doing anywhere near my normal level of activities, but I am doing many more activities that I find entertaining and get me out of the house,” said Zach Dutton, 47, of Arlington, who described himself in the latest WGBH News/Globe poll as “very strict.”

During the height of the state’s outbreak, Dutton and his wife left the house only to do essential shopping. He also, occasionally, went into his office at Raytheon, where he is a scientist, the few times when he couldn’t do what he needed to do at home.

But more recently, they’ve had a few small social gatherings — outside, with masks if they can’t keep proper distance — with friends “that we trust to also be careful,” said Dutton. He went to get his hair cut, and he and his wife are willing to take their kids into stores, which they weren’t before. They went to the beach once.

“We have relaxed about wiping things down as the science shows this isn’t a surface disease,” Josh Demasi of Hingham said in a message to the Globe. His family also recently expanded their “pod” to two other families who have been very careful but they get together only outdoors, he said.

Jennifer Internicola of Brookline said in a message that she ventured downtown for the first time last week. “Mask, sanitize when leaving stores,” she said of her approach. She added that she also recently started eating out in the North End and elsewhere, wearing her mask when walking but taking it off when sitting down.

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Mike Goldkuhl ventured out to his first multiperson gathering, a small backyard wedding for his girlfriend’s daughter. Everyone wore masks. Goldkuhl found it annoying to be “huffing and puffing the whole time,” which he isn’t used to because he hasn’t been doing anything that requires wearing a mask for more than a short period.

The 62-year-old Framingham resident has declined to return to work as a driving instructor, even though his boss has restarted the business, because he doesn’t think it is safe. He has visited his grandchildren only at a distance, standing in the driveway of his daughter’s house.

“My personal opinion, you are literally playing Russian roulette to go out and mingle with people now,” Goldkuhl said.

Stephen Kissler, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said easing up on the most extreme social distancing measures makes sense given the progress Massachusetts has made in taming the outbreak. He said many other countries have been able to maintain control of their epidemics after a sustained period of social distancing, with the help of aggressive control of cases that emerge.

While that doesn’t describe the entire United States, it does seem to be the scenario playing out in the region and particularly in Massachusetts, he said.

“I do think it’s probably OK for us to start relaxing some of the really strict measures that we were doing earlier in the pandemic,” said Kissler. That comes with the caveat, however, that people need to be prepared to restart more stringent distancing if the virus flares back up, he added.

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In his own life, Kissler said, he’s relaxed somewhat but continues to completely avoid situations that could result in “super-spreading events” — which includes avoiding sustained, indoor exposure to other people.

In the June poll from WGBH News, The Boston Globe, MassLive, and the State House News Service, 17 percent of people surveyed said they were “not very strict” or “not at all strict” with social distancing, up from just 6 percent of people in the early May poll.

On the other end of the spectrum, plenty of other residents remain extremely wary. Several told the Globe they are largely sticking with the safety precautions they’ve been taking for months.

For Bobbie Carlton that includes completely shutting down the office for the public relations and marketing business she owns. “I could not see going back to the office this year,” she said.

In mid-May she gave her landlord the required 60-days notice that she wanted out of the lease, and the space will be packed up and emptied by the end of July. Her five full-time employees and other staff will continue to work remotely.

Her family also hasn’t changed their strict distancing habits. “We haven’t really gone anywhere, and I don’t think we intend to,” said the 55-year-old Lexington resident. Her two sons, one who just graduated college and one who just graduated high school, aren’t really seeing their friends in person outside of a few small outdoor gatherings, always with masks, she said.

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Love Holloman, a unit coordinator at a Boston hospital, is among those who remain vigilant. “I’ve seen and I’ve heard firsthand” the results of the virus, she said of her continued adherence to strict social distancing. “I don’t want to be one of them.”

The only visitors she allows in her house are her father and his wife, who live next door. Anyone else who stops by, “we’re going to be talking through the window,” said the 46-year-old mother of two, who lives in Cambridge.

Her kids, ages 12 and 3, have doctor and dentist appointments coming up, so Holloman called the offices to check what protective gear, or PPE, staff is using and ensure the offices are taking other appropriate precautions.

“I don’t want to catch this, I don’t want to bring this home to my kids,” both of whom have respiratory issues that have required inhaler use, said Holloman. “I’m still going to continue to use my PPE and be strict until I feel comfortable, not when the state feels comfortable or when [President] Trump feels comfortable.”


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.