COVID-19 behavior and attitudes today look a lot like they did just before Omicron

Carl BialikU.S. Politics Editor and Vice President of Data Science
February 18, 2022, 11:46 PM GMT+0

As a range of poll results, including from YouGov, indicate widespread readiness to move past the pandemic and the restrictions it has brought, the latest Economist/YouGov Poll returned to questions we’d asked earlier in the pandemic to try to measure how far public attitudes and behavior have moved: Is there really a change in sentiment, and how large? We also asked some new questions to find out what people say they are and aren’t ready for, and are already doing, as they reach two years with the pandemic.

Americans have become more optimistic, and started wearing masks less frequently — but also remain supportive of mask mandates. In the past, many of these numbers have moved in a direction suggesting the pandemic was nearly over for many Americans, only to return to earlier levels during the latest wave, so it’s unclear how long-lasting any recent changes will be.

Nearly half (47%) of Americans say the worst of the pandemic is behind us — about the same as on our Nov. 6 - 9, 2021 poll (46%). Only 13% say the pandemic is going to get worse, the lowest level since our May 29 - June 1, 2021 poll. So sentiment about where we are in the pandemic appears to be at its best since between waves last year — though the trend in this question doesn’t account for the possibility that what people think of as the worst of the pandemic has increased with subsequent waves. If the worst of Omicron, when case counts reached new highs, appears like the worst phase yet, not reaching that level again might not mean the pandemic is over.

Americans say they mostly feel ready to return to normal but don’t think the pandemic is ready for them to do so. Three-quarters say they are ready to return to normal from the pandemic, including 68% of Democrats and 90% of Republicans. But about three in five Americans — including four in five Democrats — predict it won’t become safe to resume normal life activities until July or later, if at all: 18% say it will happen in the second half of 2022, 27% say in 2023 or later, and 14% say never.

Whenever Americans feel the country is ready to return to normal, the normal they return to won’t be exactly what they remember from early 2020. One-third of Americans say there are parts of life from before the pandemic that they're not yet ready to return to, and one-third say there are parts of pre-pandemic life they think they won’t ever return to. As CNN’s Ariel Edwards-Levy wrote this week, “Americans hold a broad spectrum of complex, conflicted and changeable views on managing the pandemic.”

Americans who say they haven’t yet had COVID — they say they haven’t tested positive for it and don’t think they had it but never got a positive test — do not appear to be resigned to eventually getting the disease. Just 16% say they eventually will; 44% aren’t sure, which could indicate uncertainty with the future course of the pandemic, or with their personal behavior and risk.

Americans are split between those who say there are still restrictions in their community (41%) and those who say there aren’t (38%); 21% are unsure. There’s a strong status quo bias here: Nearly two-thirds of Americans living without restrictions don’t think there ought to be any, including 30% of Democrats. But among those still living with restrictions, more say lifting them now would be too soon (46%) than say either that it would be the right time (26%) or not soon enough (17%). Only 37% of Republicans living in communities with restrictions say lifting them now would be not soon enough.

Support for mask mandates — or the right of various entities to enact them — has held mostly steady even as mask mandates have been removed or scheduled for removal around the country. Support for indoor mask mandates is essentially unchanged from our December 19-21, 2021 poll (52% support and 37% oppose this week, compared to 54% and 36% then). Support for allowing businesses to mandate mask-wearing by customers is at 55%; it has ranged between 52% and 58% in three polls since late December 2021.

People can signal their attitude as to whether the pandemic, and the need for efforts to mitigate it, is over, based on their voluntary personal activities. Here we see modest changes from before Omicron. For instance, this week we re-asked a question from Oct. 30 - Nov. 2, 2021, between the height of the Delta wave and the emergence of Omicron, asking people about social distancing, washing their hands, and wearing a mask.

Did they do these things more or less often than in the first few months of the pandemic? Both now, and a few months ago, about one-third of Americans said they were socially distancing and wearing masks less often than in spring 2020; 12% said the same about washing hands.

Our survey data also shows that taking steps to mitigate transmission of COVID is far from mutually exclusive with resuming life activities that were common before the pandemic. To study this, we returned to a question from April 5-7, 2020, asking whether people had done a range of activities in the past two weeks. The share who had was significantly higher for many of these: 49% had gone out for meals in restaurants, compared to 8% then, 47% had visited friends compared to 12%, and 22% had attended a religious service compared to 7%.

One-third (32%) of Americans say they have been wearing masks all the time when outside the home, down from a recent peak of 42% a month earlier, when the Omicron-fueled wave of COVID-19 cases was near its peak. But the percentage was almost exactly 32% throughout November and early December, and higher during the peak of the Delta wave, suggesting that we’re not yet in a new phase of post-mask pandemic living. (The percentage of Americans who say they never wear a mask similarly is roughly equal to what it was Dec. 12-14, 2021, early in the Omicron wave.)

Consistent with arguments that mask-wearing often occurs regardless of requirements to wear masks, nearly half of Americans who live in communities they say lack mask requirements say they sometimes wear masks in public (48% say they do, including 25% of Republicans; 44% say they don’t). And among Americans living in communities with ongoing mask requirements, 58% say they will continue to sometimes wear face masks even after requirements are lifted — including 40% of Republicans.

See the toplines and crosstabs from this Economist/YouGov Poll

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between February 12 and February 15, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as 2016 and 2020 Presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens. The margin of error is approximately 3% for the overall sample.

Explore more data & articles