The COVID-19 Era: Worry Is Now Pervasive — and That Is Not Entirely Bad

If you are living in the U.S. and your life has stayed about the same as it was before the coronavirus outbreak, your experience is truly extraordinary. Only 12% of Americans feel the same way you do. Close to half of all Americans, 44%, report that their life has changed in major ways. The other 44% say that it has changed a little.

Those are among the findings from a Pew Research Center online survey of how Americans are coping during the time of the coronavirus. It was conducted in March 2020 and included a representative sample of 11,537 adults recruited using a random sampling of residential addresses nationwide. 

Americans Are Now Uncomfortable with Activities that Used to Be Ordinary

The survey documented widespread discomfort with the kinds of activities that used to be routine and unremarkable. Close to 8 in 10 Americans (77%) said they would feel uncomfortable eating out in a restaurant. More than 9 in 10 (91%) said they would be uncomfortable attending a crowded party. Close to two-thirds (66%) would worry about going to a polling place to vote. Fewer than half — but still sizable numbers — would feel uncomfortable going to a grocery store (42%) or visiting a close friend or family member in their home (38%).

By now, it may seem unsurprising that 77% of Americans would feel uncomfortable eating out in a restaurant. Some may even wonder what is wrong with the others. But imagine if someone told us, around Thanksgiving of 2019, that by the spring of 2020, nearly 8 in 10 Americans would worry about going out to dinner. How would we even begin to comprehend what that could possibly mean? Those of us living through this time of COVID-19 will never wonder again; we will remember for the rest of our lives that a worldwide pandemic is a real possibility. 

Although the finding that a feeling of unease has spread throughout the land can hardly be counted as good news, it is, in a way, encouraging and potentially even life-saving. If our unease motivates us to avoid contact with other people, especially in the riskiest settings such as crowded parties, then it has served us well. One researcher after another is concluding that the most effective thing we can do to stop or at least slow the spread of the coronavirus is to practice social distancing.

Young People Are Concerned, Too

Millions of Americans have seen the images from spring break of throngs of young people packing the beaches and partying in crowded public spaces. If those scenes were not disturbing then, they probably are now. 

It has only been a few weeks since those seemingly carefree times, but now, most young people have been chastened. For example, only 27% say that they would currently feel comfortable eating out in a restaurant. That’s more than the 22% of Americans, across all age groups, who say the same thing, but it is not that far out of line. 

More than a fifth of all Americans (21%) report that they are using a food delivery service instead of going to a grocery store or restaurant as a result of the coronavirus. In this regard, the youngest American adults are leading the way. Thirty percent of Americans under the age of 30 are ordering more food to be delivered because of the coronavirus. That number drops to 25% for people between 30 and 49, and to 15% and 14% for people 50-64 and 65 and older. It is possible that other factors are also at play. For example, maybe younger people were already more inclined to order food to be delivered, even before the outbreak, but those kinds of questions were not included in the survey.

Political Party Affiliation Matters in a Big Way

For the key question of whether your life has changed in a major way as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, the Pew researchers looked at different characteristics and categories of Americans to see whose lives were impacted the most. 

They found that one of the most important factors was political party affiliation. More than half of all Democrats (51%) said that their life had changed in a major way. Fewer than 4 in 10 Republicans (38%) said the same thing. 

A complicating factor is that Democrats are more likely to live in states with a high number of confirmed cases of COVID-19. But that doesn’t explain the differences in how people’s lives have changed. Even considering only those people living in the states with the highest numbers of confirmed cases, 57% of Democrats, compared to just 42% of Republicans, said that their lives have changed in major ways. 

The gender of the participants mattered, but not as much: 47% of women’s lives were changed in major ways, compared to 42% of men’s. Age did not matter much. Whether a person identified as Hispanic, White, or Black was linked to the percent who said their lives changed in major ways (47%, 45%, and 34%, respectively), but those differences were no greater than the ones for party affiliation.

Only for level of education were the differences strikingly stronger than for political party. Sixty-one percent of people with postgraduate degrees said that their lives had changed in a major way, compared to just 35% of people with a high school degree or less. The survey did not explore the reasons for this disparity. It is possible that the people with less education are disproportionately doing the jobs now considered essential, such as working at grocery stores, transporting and delivering packages, and keeping hospitals clean. That’s what they were doing before the outbreak, and that’s what they are doing now. 

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