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Floridians support coronavirus mitigation efforts despite economic concerns | Column
Even in the face of significant economic hardships, Floridians overwhelmingly support efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, a survey shows.
Rolo's Bakery in Riverview opened its doors to  their customers this week following all safety measures, including the use of masks.
Rolo's Bakery in Riverview opened its doors to their customers this week following all safety measures, including the use of masks. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published May 15, 2020

Social media feeds and newscasts have recently played host to numerous examples of public anger over protective measures aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19. From viral videos of citizens angry about requirements to wear face coverings, to armed protesters demanding states reopen non-essential businesses, these anecdotes suggest that there is widespread opposition to mitigation efforts. Such stories have been boosted by viral disinformation aimed at sowing deeper divisions. There is another story, however, of an overwhelming and largely unheard majority of Floridians.

Even in the face of significant economic hardships, Floridians overwhelmingly support efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Recently, the University of South Florida and Nielsen partnered to launch a COVID-19 focused edition of the Sunshine State Survey. The representative survey of 600 Floridians examined attitudes and opinions on the coronavirus outbreak as well as state and local responses to the crisis. We found a public concerned about the health situation and overwhelmingly supportive of mitigation measures despite facing economic hardships.

USF-Nielsen Sunshine State COVID-19 survey
USF-Nielsen Sunshine State COVID-19 survey [ Provided ]

First, the USF-Nielsen survey showed widespread public concern over the future health effects of COVID-19. More than half of all respondents surveyed (52.2%) indicated that they were concerned about contracting the virus, while just over three-fourths expressed concern that someone they knew would fall ill in the next three months (76.6%). Such attitudes illustrate that swift moves to reopen businesses and recreational areas may not be met by a public willing to take on increased health risks.

USF professor Stephen Neely
USF professor Stephen Neely [ File photo ]

These concerns may help to explain why Floridians overwhelmingly support state and local efforts to limit the spread of the virus.

The survey showed that healthy majorities of the public—regardless of political partisanship—support mitigation measures designed to slow the virus’s spread. In particular, a strong majority of individuals participating in the survey indicated their support for the state limiting public gatherings (94.3%), closing restaurants and bars (88.9%), limiting gatherings in houses of worship (87.4%), and closing parks and beaches (81.6%). Sizeable majorities even favored instituting nightly curfews (62.9%) and the issuance of fines for those who violate stay-at-home orders (62.2%).

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Despite facial covering requirements becoming a flashpoint in some areas, such attitudes are not widely represented in the data. Four in 5 Floridians (79.3%) would support a statewide measure requiring individuals to wear face masks in public. With the possibility for future viral waves in the summer and fall, state and local leaders have public support to make the decisions necessary to protect Florida.

Joshua Scacco
Joshua Scacco [ Provided ]

Second, our data reveal that such public policy support comes at a great cost. In the process of containing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19, government leaders also must acknowledge and attempt to mitigate the economic sacrifices many individuals are making.

According to the survey responses, roughly two-thirds of the state’s households have experienced at least some level of income loss and work disruption as a result of the coronavirus situation. More than 15% of households have seen at least one individual file for unemployment benefits since the start of the public health crisis. Similarly, a quarter of all households (26.6%) reported at least some cut in hours, and 17.9% have experienced temporary furloughs. Given these sacrifices, it’s unsurprising that more than 60% of survey respondents expressed concern over their ability to meet their financial obligations over the next three months.

USF-Nielsen Sunshine State COVID-19 survey
USF-Nielsen Sunshine State COVID-19 survey [ Provided ]

Finally, amid widespread health and economic impacts, Floridians showed strong support for state and local responses to the pandemic. A majority of individuals surveyed (51.5%) indicated that they approve of the state government’s response, and more than two-thirds (68.8%) approved of their local government’s response.

Certainly, public sentiment will evolve on these matters. However, the subdued nature of calls to reopen in Florida, even in the short time since this survey was fielded, suggest that these attitudes continue to dominate. For the moment, Florida’s state and local leaders seem to enjoy broad public support. The extent to which that support endures may hinge on how well government leaders recognize and seek to prioritize the legitimate long-term health and economic concerns of individuals. Both public health and economic life can be protected.

The next few months will test the public, policy leaders, and those professionals who report information to the public. These survey results illustrate that the loudest voices in our social media feeds and news stories are sometimes not representative of the broader public. And the public’s well-placed health and economic concerns should serve as a stark reminder of the enormous personal and professional sacrifices being made by Floridians in the face of COVID-19.

Stephen Neely (srneely@usf.edu) is an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of South Florida. Joshua Scacco (jscacco@usf.edu) is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida. Neely and Scacco are faculty researchers with the Sunshine State Survey.