Three months into the biggest pandemic in a century, could there possibly be anyone in America who hasn’t heard the call to Stay Home?
Thomas Goetz is the chief of research at GoodRx. He was previously executive editor at WIRED.
Turns out, the answer is … yes, a lot more people than you think. Even as state after state has issued orders to their citizens to stay at home, many have not been getting the message. Indeed, even in states that have had such instructions in place for weeks, consistently 15 percent or more of citizens seem to misunderstand whether they are subject to an order. In some states, more than half of citizens seem to be missing the message.
These numbers are based on a survey I’ve helped coordinate in recent weeks with my colleague Matt Mohebbi. We’ve asked more than 100,000 people across all 50 states a simple question: Do you live in an area that is currently under a stay-at-home order due to the pandemic?
To be clear, these are not people who are willfully disregarding instructions from their elected governments. These are people who are not getting the message in the first place. So what’s going on here? After all, the message to stay at home is not complicated. It is easy to understand.
The first statewide stay-at-home order was issued by California governor Gavin Newsom on March 19, with Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker following on March 21. By the end of March, 32 states had enacted similar orders. On Tuesday, South Carolina became the latest to issue an order, after weeks of hedging whether such a directive was necessary.
The tone of these messages has been consistently earnest and direct. “It is clear more people still need to hear this basic message: Stay home,” the governor of Virginia said on March 30.
But as insistent as most of these governors have been, they are not the only messengers spreading advice around Covid-19. The messaging from Washington, DC, has been muddled and contradictory, and amid the dissonance of Fox News, Facebook, and well-meaning friends, there’s been a persistent gap between the urgency of the state orders and the message many people actually take away.
To better understand whether stay-at-home orders were being understood and what messages people actually heard, we used Google Surveys, a validated survey instrument that offers a representative sample of Americans, to gather responses from more than 100,000 people between March 22 and April 5. (The survey appeared to internet users on more than 1,500 websites; Google then weights the sample to match the overall population, using Census Bureau data.) We asked respondents whether they live in an area under a stay-at-home order due to the pandemic; respondents could answer Yes, No, or I Don’t Know.
Note that stay-at-home orders have been a moving target, with five states still under no order and three states under partial orders, as of 5 pm ET on Tuesday, and this survey took place during a period when many states enacted their order at different times. Since we wanted to see how effectively these messages were getting through, we filtered our results to include only responses given after a state-order had been put in effect.
The results show that, in many areas of the country, significant parts of the population do not understand the directives they’ve been given. In Arkansas—which as of this writing is not under a state order—more than 60 percent of the population answered Yes or I Don’t Know to our question. In Utah, where orders have been issued only regionally, nearly half couldn’t provide the correct answer. (We filtered out results in Davis, Salt Lake, and Summit counties, where orders were put into effect between March 27 and April 1.) Similar confusion reigned in Wyoming, Missouri, Alabama, and South Carolina, where governors have been slow to act and inconsistent with their communications. In each of these states, about half of respondents seem to be confused about whether they are subject to an order.
Even in states that acted earlier, muddled messaging spelled confusion. In Texas, where Governor Gregg Abbott issued a stay-at-home order on March 31 but hedged about whether it was, in fact, a stay-at-home order, fully one-quarter of the population misunderstood the instructions. But even in New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo’s stern approach has won praise, again about 25 percent of the population appears to be missing the message.
Elsewhere, in states including California, Colorado, Michigan, and Illinois, about 15 percent of the population appears to be misinformed. The very lowest rate of confusion was registered in Michigan; but even there, a significant proportion—13 percent—did not get the gist of the message to stay home.
Our survey also explored the reasons why people might be skirting stay-at-home directives. Drawing on survey questionnaire guidance from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we asked respondents whether, in the past seven days, they had attended a community gathering, hung out at a restaurant or bar, visited another person’s house, or hosted a large group of people at their home.
Again, there was significant variation among the states in the proportion of respondents who had bent the rules of social distancing.
In Nevada and Nebraska, about 13 percent of respondents had not been strict about social distancing over the previous week, while the rate in New Jersey was just 4 percent. Nationwide about 10 percent acknowledged non-distancing behavior. There was a noticeable gender difference, too, among those who reported that behavior: 55 percent were men, and 45 percent were women. Men were especially likely to have gone to a restaurant or bar, attended a community gathering, or hosted more than 10 people at their house.
It’s too easy, and probably wrong, to say that people are simply flouting the rules on purpose. Nationwide, about 25 percent of people misunderstand whether they are subject to an order, while about 10 percent of people nationwide are not being strict in their adherence to social distancing. It seems reasonable to infer significant overlap between these groups. If orders are not being effectively communicated, then it’s not surprising that people aren’t following those orders.
Politics has long banked on the concept of low-information rationality, a term coined in 1991 by political scientist Samuel Popkin to refer to some voters’ limited engagement with and understanding of issues. While high-information voters dig in to grasp the nuances of an issue, low-information voters are more likely to ignore the substance of an issue in favor of their gut instinct. They tend to be lower-income and have less access to resources like higher education or health care.
These past few weeks have made clear that the same issues of information flow is a factor in public health as well. Many citizens are busy getting by, worried about their jobs, worried about their families. In many cases, they may not have much of a choice to social distance, regardless. These citizens don’t choose to ignore what their leaders are saying; they’re just too busy dealing with life to pay attention.
The sad truth is that members of this population, who are much more likely to be poor and more likely to be people of color, now face a double whammy: Not only are they less informed about how to behave in the face of the largest public health crisis in a century, but they are also at much higher risk of contracting Covid-19, just as they’re at higher risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease—conditions that make a case of Covid-19 more likely to be fatal.
In this sense, their leaders and fellow citizens have failed them twice over.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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