The COVID-19 pandemic and surrounding policy discussions are constantly evolving. The nation is divided when it comes to balancing the economy and controlling the virus. Most people are not certain about the best course for the country, and they struggle to know who they can trust. The health, economic, societal, and emotional tolls are significant, with many Americans hungry to return to normal activities like visiting family and friends, shopping, getting back to work, and just getting a haircut.
When it comes to effective communications, it is important to meet people where they are and not where we would like them to be. Americans are starting to look ahead, and now is the time to talk about what comes next. Understanding the aforementioned conflicts, concerns, and desires helps us craft thoughtful discussions, build trust, and lead with empathy.
We believe nonprofit think tanks play a vital role in society by providing reliable research, analysis, and education to help government officials develop compassionate policies that are responsive to the challenges their communities face. In order for state-based leaders to solve local problems in ways that truly meet their communities’ needs, it’s critical to listen to and understand fellow Americans’ concerns.
Since March 2020, State Policy Network and Heart + Mind Strategies have tracked American reactions and needs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, nine weeks into weekly tracking polls, trends are emerging that should help state-based leaders effectively communicate with their states about policies related to the pandemic and those that are not.
The following observations and suggestions are based upon research from Heart+Mind Strategies and the success of state think tanks around the country that are working alongside communities and government leaders to determine the path forward.
Table of Contents: Data and takeaways included in this post
COVID-19 Weekly Tracking: Week 9 Highlights
Meeting people where they are
- 80% of Americans believe the coronavirus is a real threat. To date, it appears that differences in opinion are developing along party lines when it comes to perspectives on the threat, closures, and the re-opening discussions. Nevertheless, the majority of each group still view the coronavirus as a threat.
- Most Americans want the states to lead decisions about re-opening. They know the pandemic has had a negative impact on their freedoms. However, they want assurances that hospitals can treat all patients without crisis standards of care and that tests are available for the people who want and need them. They want to feel secure about public health but only roughly one in ten do. Messages from the federal government leave them more confused than confident, highlighting a key need for strong state leadership.
- More Americans prefer a voluntary approach where they can use local conditions and reliable information to protect themselves and others versus a strict approach that entails wider quarantines and surveillance.
- The pandemic has undermined Americans’ sense of freedom, peace of mind, security, enjoyment, and social order. Negative emotions are also running high; concern, caution, worry, and anxiety are being experienced by a majority of the country.
- Americans are divided about whether to continue with closures, and even with the lifting of restrictions, they are not certain that they will return to normal any time soon.
- While a majority of people believe it is not time to dial back restrictions, a significant number in this group are only selectively following stay-at-home orders by heading out for non-essential items, meeting family and friends (with or without social distancing precautions) and venturing into public places without masks. These Americans aren’t rebelling or dismissing the threat. Rather, they are weary of being caught between quarantine fatigue and a desire to support public health initiatives.
- Confidence that the personal and economic impact of the coronavirus will last less than six months is low, and a significant number expect the effects to be felt for a year or more.
Striking an Appropriate Tone
- Serious and respectful. Many consider the coronavirus a real threat, and just as many are concerned about the economic consequences. Deliver messages seriously and respectfully.
- Visionary and positive. Americans want to see a future beyond the pandemic, and they want to celebrate America at its best.
- Practical and clear. Cut through the noise and confusion by offering clear recommendations.
- Analysis, not blame. Blame is divisive and shuts channels of communication. Policymakers are more likely to respond favorably to rational, constructive analysis over finger pointing.
- Empathy and honesty. Nationally, citizens report growth in their sense of concern for others related to their health, social, and economic well-being.
- Trustworthy. Earn trust by avoiding politicizing issues so that you become known as a reliable and compassionate truth teller on behalf of the citizens in your communities.
Balancing concerns about the economy and containing the virus
As noted, the nation is divided over balancing reopening the economy and controlling the virus, and they do not see a clear path forward. We can position ourselves as thoughtful leaders discussing solutions for balancing these concerns: protecting lives, families, communities, and the economy.
- Restoring peace of mind and security are important components of any plan. Americans are more likely to think that we should fully contain the virus before reopening businesses. If you are able to point to successful business openings and the best practices used to protect health, you will shrink the gap between concern and peace of mind.
- Economic concerns are very real even if a majority believe they are secondary to public health concerns. However, economic anxieties are not really about getting back to work—they are about the deeper needs of feeling secure and having peace of mind about the future.
- Shift discussions from closure policies that dictate essential vs. non-essential to more constructive framing that encourages and promotes safety and peace of mind.
- Freedom is the value that Americans feel has been most negatively impacted by the coronavirus. Above all, they are eager to have the freedom to visit with family and friends and resume everyday activities like getting a haircut, shopping, and going to restaurants. Simultaneously, they feel a concern for others. Our takeaway: show how we have concern for others while restoring freedoms to our communities.
- Expertise matters. Since this is a public health issue, people trust and want to hear from the CDC along with their local medical and public health experts. This reality is important to understand for people who decide to take issue with public health professionals.
- Address the desire to balance health and economic well-being by showing how to restart aspects of life without completely disregarding public health needs and common-sense health protections.
Making the case for state and local leadership
Federalism has long been seen as a partisan issue. Republicans generally recognize that states are better positioned than Washington to solve problems. However, when asked whether the federal government or the states should make the final decision about when to re-open their economies, nearly as many Democrats (60%) and Independents (57%) favor state-led solutions as do Republicans (62%).
- Trust in the federal government continues to decline. Americans trust their state and local governments more and want to see the states lead decisions about re-opening. The most trusted institutions in the states are the local medical community, local health department, the state government (including the governor), and city and local governments. Local government is definitely not immune to poor decision-making but in the spirit of federalism, decisions are made closer to home and are more accountable to their communities.
- Americans think business is doing a fair to excellent job responding to the coronavirus. They trust small businesses more than large businesses. Many value the ability to visit stores, hairdressers, and restaurants once restrictions lift.
- When it comes to pending state budget crises, Americans are divided with 31% against federal bailouts, 26% undecided, and 53% in favor of bailouts. However, they think other budget balancing strategies like stopping raises and bonuses for government employees (45%), accessing rainy day funds (44%), priority-based budgeting, and spending down of surpluses (39%) are more or as preferable to requesting federal funds (44%). Tax increases (15%) and borrowing (16%) are the least supported solutions.
- Americans want less confusion and crave leadership to show them how to ease back into social and economic life instead of focusing on the unattainable benchmark of not leaving the house.
Showing what works
Show, don’t tell, what works. Stories, testimonials, and other real-life examples help to persuade others to your point of view.
- Lead with a hope and growth mindset that says we can prevail; that invites them to help build a new normal where we can come out ahead.
- Most Americans miss their routines. They have, however, started new routines and expect to start more for the near future and in some cases permanently.
- Share the success, benefits, and outcomes of good policy decisions, as well as the harm and unintended consequences of poor policy decisions.