Two-thirds of Americans say that once the coronavirus pandemic ends, they plan to put on masks when sick and wear comfortable clothes more often than before, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll that points to enduring cultural shifts the public health crisis may bring about.
And nearly three-fourths of Americans say they expect to spend more time outdoors after the pandemic. Among U.S. adults of all ages, majorities expect to be outdoors more often — especially younger adults. Among those under 40, more than 8 in 10 say they intend to be outdoors more frequently.
Taken together, the findings in the poll conducted by The Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University suggest that some adjustments that many Americans have made in their daily lives during the pandemic’s 1½ years — dressing casually while working from home, following public health advice and trying to avoid exposure to the virus — are likely to linger broadly after the virus recedes.
In some instances, the behavior shifts that people anticipate defy the intense political polarization that has surrounded public health guidance about how best to stay safe from infection.
More than half of U.S. adults who identify as Republicans say they plan to use masks when they are sick after the pandemic, despite disdain for mask-wearing by former president Donald Trump and steps by some GOP governors and state legislatures to ban mask mandates. The share of Democrats saying they expect to wear masks when they are sick in a post-pandemic world is higher — about 8 in 10.
Other partisan differences are evident from the poll, particularly involving the extent to which people regard their lives as back to pre-pandemic normalcy. Almost half of Republicans — but just under 1 in 6 Democrats — describe their lives as having fully returned to the way they were.
Work patterns differ as well. Slightly more than one-third of Democrats say they teleworked during the previous month because of the coronavirus, compared with 1 in 7 Republicans.
More than half of Republicans say they have attended crowded indoor events and crowded outdoor events — significantly more than the share of Democrats who say they have done either.
Some basic behaviors people expect to persist are nearly identical for Republicans and Democrats and for men and women. People hold in common plans to wear comfortable clothing more often and to spend more time outdoors. And regardless of political affiliation or gender, roughly 4 in 10 U.S. adults say they intend to have telemedicine appointments with doctors once the pandemic ends.
In such ways, the coronavirus pandemic is bringing about “a cultural revolution,” said Robert J. Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard University who specializes in public attitudes.
“This is not unlike post-World War II,” Blendon said. “Thousands of people have died. You had to change your lifestyle, where you work, where your kids are.”
The seriousness of a mass event influences the extent to which it prompts cultural change, he said. The 9/11 terrorist attacks happened on a single day, he pointed out, but it was grave enough that it “got people used to standing in line and being screened at airports.”
The coronavirus pandemic, Blendon said, is both serious and long-lasting, having been declared 17 months ago and, as the delta variant continues to spread, providing no sign of when it will end.
So, after many professional workers have shed suits while working from home, even for Zoom meetings, and after many people abandoned large weddings that demand formal attire, it is not surprising, he said, that “we are going to see a more California lifestyle, less formal dress. People are going to avoid larger crowds for quite a while. . . . It just will look culturally very different.”
Laura Spinney, author of a recent book on the 1918 flu pandemic and its aftereffects, said that after that crisis, people in many countries shed pandemic behaviors relatively quickly.
But not everywhere. The century-ago pandemic, Spinney said, sparked the habit in Japan of wearing a mask to protect others when someone has a cold or other infectious illness. But in the United States and Western Europe, she said, “it did not last.”
When the current pandemic ends, Spinney said, behavioral changes may end up enduring more among certain groups — older adults staying away from crowds because they have felt especially vulnerable to covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, or children continuing to put on masks because their early memories include wearing them on a playground.
Cultural changes are more likely to endure if behaviors adopted in a pandemic “converge with a preexisting trend,” she said — such as teleworking and, in turn, making clothing choices suitable to working from home. While social changes often are subtle, she said, a pandemic can hasten them “because it gets right down to our daily life.”
According to the Post-Schar School survey, men are more likely than women to regard their lives as back to normal — or mostly so. Almost three-fourths of U.S. men say they have fully or mostly returned to their pre-pandemic lives, compared with nearly 6 in 10 women.
“I think I want to get back to normal, or whatever you want to call it, so I try to live that way,” said Claude Chartrand, 58, who lives in Park City, Utah.
A mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, Chartrand said he recently put a mask back on, but it was because of smoke drifting from West Coast wildfires, not to avoid exposure to the virus.
Chartrand, a Libertarian, said he thinks about the ongoing pandemic. “How can you not?” he said. “It’s on TV. It’s all over.” He and his wife, an office manager for a nonprofit health clinic, were vaccinated in the spring, and their 23-year-old daughter just got vaccinated so she will be able to attend a family wedding that requires it.
Chartrand said he always has been something of a homebody, and he kept his postal route through the pandemic, so his life did not feel like it was altered that much. But starting in late winter and early spring, he said, he noticed he was going to friends’ houses more often, going into restaurants, no longer wearing a mask.
In the future, “I wouldn’t be gung-ho about it, wearing a mask just because I have a common cold,” he said. “In my mind-set, getting back to normal is not wearing a mask.”
In contrast, Laura Howard, 68, who lives in the Hudson Valley town of Milton, N.Y., is among the three-fourths of U.S. women who say their lives are not fully back to normal.
A retired eighth-grade teacher, Howard had been substitute teaching until the coronavirus arrived but has not returned. The only time she has gone into New York City 80 miles to the south, an easy train ride away, was in October, when her sister died. She watched her daughter’s wedding on Zoom.
Howard was always the kind of person who wiped down equipment at the gym, in case of germs.
Even before the delta variant fueled the current surge, even when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks, indoors or out, Howard never stopped using a face covering “if I don’t know the people well enough to know they are really careful.”
Howard, a registered Democrat, said she thinks people who value their own freedom more than protecting others have a kind of arrogance that is “one of the problems of the human species.”
Her house is in the woods, and she spends a lot of time outdoors, reading, walking trails nearby, heading into town. When she goes to a restaurant, she sits outside.
But she said, “I miss not having to think about being so careful all the time. That’s what I miss.”
The Washington Post-Schar School poll was conducted by telephone July 6-21 among a random national sample of 1,000 adults with 75 percent reached on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines with a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points for the full sample.
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