After roughly two months of shuttered businesses and stay-at-home orders, U.S. political leaders are debating what steps to take next in handling the coronavirus pandemic. Most scientists believe that reopening should involve large-scale virus and antibody testing and contact tracing, ongoing social distancing, continued use of masks, and lower occupancy rates for businesses and events where people previously sat side by side.

So what would Americans be willing to accept? In a new survey that we conducted in April, we found that citizens are looking to their leaders for guidance on the coronavirus. Even in an already deeply divided nation, citizens across party lines may be willing to follow expert guidance — even if they may have to sacrifice some privacy — depending on their political leaders’ signals. We’ll explain below.

Here’s how we did our research

Between April 10 and April 14, we conducted a nationally representative online survey of 2,400 Americans, using Qualtrics. We found that an overwhelming percentage of both Republicans and Democrats supported the measures that public health experts recommended to “flatten the curve.“

More than eight in 10 Americans said they supported:

  1. Orders to wear masks outside the home;
  2. Stay-at-home orders requiring people to forego nonessential activities;
  3. Closing nonessential businesses;
  4. Police monitoring public spaces to enforce compliance.

Not surprisingly, more Democrats supported these measures than Republicans. But as you can see in the figure below, more than 75 percent of Republicans supported these as well.

Americans don’t like some of the measures suggested next

When we asked citizens about some of the measures that other countries have employed or public health experts have recommended for reopening the economy, public opinion was mixed. For example, 68 percent of Americans support requiring citizens to be tested even if they don’t have symptoms, which is central to random testing. Further, 69 percent support having those results entered into a government database, which is critical to be able to perform contact tracing for those who test positive. And 66 percent support quarantining those who test positive by taking them away from their families so they do not further spread the virus to loved ones.

Opinion on these measures does not differ much by party. Sixty percent of Republicans support testing healthy Americans even if they don’t have symptoms, while for Democrats, that’s 75 percent — but a majority of both groups support the testing. And for the other two measures, party differences are negligible.

Other countries have gone still further in their virus containment efforts. Some suggest using technology to help trace the recent contacts for people who test positive. That can be a hard sell in a society that prizes liberty and privacy. As the figure below shows, our survey found only 34 percent of Americans favor allowing government to use cellphone apps to track people’s movements; 40 percent favor requiring people to use digital passes to enter certain parts of towns or cities; and 29 percent favor using facial recognition software to aid in contact tracing.

But bipartisan leadership based on expert recommendations could shape public opinion

Nevertheless, opinion on these and other issues can probably still be shaped. Because digital contact tracing and digital passes remain just vague possibilities, people likely haven’t thought much about their own opinions and political leaders have not yet weighed in.

That means political leaders could still shape public opinion. Research finds that after citizens’ favored party leaders support or oppose various measures, their stances tend to harden, with most partisans following their leaders’ stances, as they do on other issues. If both parties’ leaders encourage citizens to accept expert public health recommendations and measures that have saved lives elsewhere, more lives may well be saved.

Leah Christiani is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Marc J. Hetherington is a professor of political science at UNC Chapel Hill.

Michael MacKuen is a professor of political science at UNC Chapel Hill.

Graeme Robertson is a professor of political science at UNC Chapel Hill.

Emily Wager is a PhD candidate in political science at UNC Chapel Hill.