People traveled to Harrisburg even though the state was ordered to stay at home. They brought posters reading “Wolf is our virus” and “Liberate PA.” They stood close enough to rub shoulders, and not all were wearing masks. They wanted to get back to work now.
The anti-shutdown rallies across the nation, like the one in Harrisburg on April 20 or another in Boston on Monday, are among the most high-profile political acts of defiance since the coronavirus outbreak brought the country to a standstill. But a new report seems to indicate that a majority of Pennsylvanians don’t hold similar views.
At the end of March, Daniel Hopkins, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is one of the report’s authors, set out to evaluate if people supported policies like shutting down businesses and ordering everyone to stay at home.
Almost 60% of Pennsylvanians who responded to the survey agreed that “we must continue to stay home for as long as necessary, even if the economy suffers.” However, views split significantly by party. More than 90% of Democrats responding said people should stay home as long as necessary, while half of the Republicans said the country should “reopen the economy as soon as possible, even if more people get sick."
In surveys, it is typical to see extreme polarization, like how most Democrats responded that they didn’t trust information from President Donald Trump while most Republicans did. But on many questions from this survey, Pennsylvanians across parties seemed to have similar views.
Hopkins said he chose to survey Pennsylvanians because he works and lives here, and it’s a key swing state with a population split among large, diverse cities, bustling suburbs, and sprawling rural regions. The April report, authored by professors from Swarthmore College and Penn, is based on a 20-question online survey of 1,912 Pennsylvanians between April 4 and 8, and examines reactions to these policies. Respondents were recruited through online ads targeting Pennsylvania residents from diverse backgrounds. There was a 2.5% plus/minus margin of error.
Although people who take online political surveys tend to be more politically engaged than the average person, and 87% of the survey respondents were white in a state where 82% of the population is white, the responses include people from all 18 congressional districts, Hopkins said.
“This kind of survey work is going to be really vital in identifying how the public is reacting," Hopkins said, “and what kinds of messages are more or less influential on attitudes and behaviors.”
Charles Bernsteel, a 58-year-old Trump supporter from Northeast Philadelphia, did not take the survey, but is among Pennsylvanians who think the economy should be opened again.
Bernsteel said he did not always believe the coronavirus was real. At first, he thought “China and the Democrats got together” and were using the threat of the virus to crash the economy and try to get Trump voted out of office. But once Bernsteel saw that people were dying, he accepted that the virus was a reality.
Bernsteel also believes the city and state should not be shut down. Businesses, he said, can implement the same safety precautions people like him are taking, and open their doors.
“All these governors shutting these states down. It is crazy. They overrule us. It is like we are living in a communist country,” Bernsteel said. “They need to get this country going again."
When he goes out, he said, he wears a mask and gloves, and practices social distancing. The report shows that a majority of respondents, Republican and Democratic, said in the poll that it is extremely or very important to practice social distancing.
People of both political parties strongly opposed the government’s using cell phone data to make sure residents comply with quarantine orders, agreed it was important to practice physical distancing, and overwhelmingly said they had a great deal or a good amount of trust in experts, according to the survey.
“Ultimately the fight against coronavirus is going to be determined by actions citizens take from their own volition, because they understand the risks and they understand the benefits,” Hopkins said. “We shouldn’t hesitate to lead and shouldn’t be overly influenced by a vocal minority who may be calling for other approaches.”
In Mohnton, Berks County, Jennifer Moorehead said she believes people arguing to open up the economy as soon as possible are “short sighted.”
She also wishes life was back to normal — she had to lay off 22 employees from her business, Science Explorers, last month — but said she listens to the warnings and knows how dangerous the coronavirus is. She got a PPP loan two weeks ago and was able to hire back some employees.
The hardest part, said Moorehead, a 55-year-old Democrat, is that she can’t hug her six grandchildren. She has only been able to hold her now-3-month-old grandson once because of the pandemic. Moorehead also did not take the survey, but believes people should stay home as long as needed.
“I want to go grab my grandchildren and hold them more than anything,” Moorehead said. “But right now I believe that the social distancing is the best way I can love them.”