Americans Are Isolating Themselves Less, but That Doesn't Mean They Are Abandoning COVID-19 Precautions

Sensible social distancing does not require staying in your house.


"Social distancing" in the United States has dropped "significantly" since late March, USA Today reports, citing new Gallup poll results. But what that means is not at all clear once you look at the question Gallup asked, and the picture gets even fuzzier when you consider the findings of another survey that asked Americans about their readiness to resume something approximating normal life.

Gallup's poll, which was conducted from May 4 to May 10, asked participants to pick one of five descriptions for their behavior during the previous 24 hours:

1) "completely isolated yourself, having no contact with people outside your household"

2) "mostly isolated yourself, having very little contact with people outside your household"

3) "partially isolated yourself, having some contact with people outside your household"

4) "isolated yourself a little, still having a fair amount of contact with people outside your household"

5) "did not make any attempt to isolate yourself from people outside your household"

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they were completely or mostly isolating themselves, down from a peak of 75 percent in a Gallup poll conducted from March 30 to April 5. That number fell both in states that had lifted their COVID-19 lockdowns as of May 4 and in states that were maintaining them, although the drop was bigger in the less restricted states. But since isolate and contact are ambiguous, equating this shift in reported behavior with a medically meaningful decline in "social distancing" is problematic.

If someone who was not leaving his house at all finally ventured out for a walk or a quick trip to the grocery store, for example, he would be "isolating" himself less and might be having more "contact" with other people (passers-by on the street, employees and other shoppers at the store), but that does not necessarily mean he ran a significant risk of catching the COVID-19 virus or passing it on to others. If his contact was limited to waving at a neighbor, or if he wore a mask to the supermarket and maintained an appropriate distance from other similarly masked people, his odds of catching or transmitting the virus would still be infinitesimal.

If "social distancing" means complete isolation, the Gallup results indicate that it is becoming less common. But that is not necessarily the case if "social distancing" means taking reasonable precautions.

A recent Piplsay survey that asked more-specific questions suggests that Americans generally remain quite cautious about COVID-19 risks. While 53 percent of respondents said they were "very comfortable" with "returning to work," that was conditioned on "adequate precautions." Even with precautions, 47 percent were "not very comfortable" or "not all comfortable" with resuming work.

What about "using public transport during the pandemic"? Only 24 percent were "very comfortable but with adequate precautions," while 21 percent were "not very comfortable," 18 percent were "not at all comfortable," and 37 percent said they "won't be taking public transport anytime soon."

The results were similar for "visiting restaurants, malls, gyms, salons, etc." Forty-six percent of respondents said they would wait "a month or more after they reopen," 30 percent said they'd wait "a few weeks," and only 24 percent were ready to patronize such businesses right away.

The respondents also generally planned to continue wearing masks and/or gloves in public. While 24 percent said they'd do so only "when/where it's mandatory," the rest said they were prepared to use protective gear voluntarily for periods ranging from "another few weeks" to "another 2–3 months at least."

Whatever you think about the merits of COVID-19 lockdowns, they cannot last forever—or even until a vaccine is developed and deployed, which could take another year or more—because they impose enormous economic and social costs. Isolating known disease carriers for a couple of weeks is one thing; indefinitely isolating the entire population is quite another. Reopening the economy is largely about deciding what kind of social distancing is both sensible and sustainable.