The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poll finds universal lifestyle changes, rising stress and growing fears about catching coronavirus

D.C. police tape off Independence Avenue to keep crowds from gathering to see the cherry blossoms on roads adjoining or leading to the Tidal Basin. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The spreading coronavirus pandemic has brought massive and sudden disruption to the daily lives of most Americans amid rapidly rising fears that they could become ill with the covid-19 disease, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Almost overnight, the threat from the virus has changed habits and lifestyles. Roughly 9 in 10 say they are staying home “as much as possible” and are practicing social distancing to lessen the risk of getting the virus. Nearly 9 in 10 say they have stopped going to bars and restaurants. About 6 in 10 say they have stockpiled food and household supplies at home.

On the political front, President Trump narrowly wins approval for his handling of the outbreak, and his overall approval rating has grown five percentage points since February, to 48 percent, even as most Americans say he was too slow to take action in the early days of the virus’s spread. The rise in Trump’s approval rating, however, is far smaller than some other presidents have experienced in times of national crisis.

The change in Americans’ lives has been swift and dramatic. Less than two weeks ago, a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found 40 percent saying their lives had been disrupted and only 16 percent calling those disruptions significant. In the Post-ABC poll, more than 3 in 4 say their life has been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak, with half the population saying there has been “a lot” of disruption.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, phrases like “quarantine,” “isolation” and “social distancing” are making news. Here are the key differences of each. (Video: The Washington Post)

Stress levels appear to be higher today than they were during the Great Recession that followed the financial collapse of 2008, with 7 in 10 Americans citing the virus outbreak as a source of that stress and 1 in 3 saying it caused “serious” stress. During the deep recession in early 2009, fewer than 6 in 10 said the economy was a source of stress.

Women and those with children at home are some of those most likely to feel additional pressure, with about three-quarters of each group saying the outbreak has caused them stress, and over 4 in 10 describing it as “serious.” One source of their stress: Women are more likely than men to say they or a family member lost their job or had hours or pay cut because of the coronavirus.

Read the full Post-ABC poll results| See results by group

Nearly 7 in 10 Americans say they are worried that they or someone in their immediate family might catch the disease. Asked to rate their personal risk of getting sick from the virus, 56 percent say they feel at risk, with 20 percent saying they believe they are at high risk.

At this point, about 1 in 10 say they know someone who has been diagnosed with the virus, but about four times as many say people in their community have been diagnosed.

As with the changes people are imposing on their lives, the fear of catching the virus appears to be growing when compared with an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released just two weeks ago that showed slightly more than half of the people saying they were worried about becoming infected. Fears are also higher, sometimes significantly, than during past outbreaks of the H1N1 flu, Bird flu, SARS, Zika and during the Ebola crisis.

The Post-ABC poll underscores what is apparent in cities and towns across the country, with bars, restaurants and many other businesses closed, traffic flows significantly reduced, public transportation running on reduced schedules and parents and children sheltering together at home while trying to carry on with lives, schooling and workplace responsibilities.

Trump’s approval rise may represent a rally effect, in which Americans grow more supportive of a president during a national crisis.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush’s approval rating surged from 55 percent to 86 percent in Post-ABC polling. His ratings stayed above 60 percent for most of the next two years, and he won reelection in 2004.

His father, President George H.W. Bush, saw a similar jump in approval following the launch of the 1991 Gulf War, reaching 79 percent approval in January 1991 and 90 percent in March. His approval fell below 50 percent by the end of that year, and he lost his reelection bid in 1992 amid dissatisfaction with the economy.

Despite Trump’s uptick in approval, the verdict on his early actions in trying to control the pandemic is markedly negative, with 58 percent saying he did not move quickly enough and 38 percent saying he moved at the right speed. The result shows a clear partisan split; among Democrats, 86 percent say Trump moved too slowly, while 75 percent of Republicans say he moved at the right speed.

Today, weeks into the crisis, Trump receives more positive ratings for the way he is handling the pandemic and his overall duties as the nation’s chief executive.

His job approval rating stands at 48 percent positive and 46 percent negative among all adults, up from 43 percent positive and 53 percent negative in February. That is the highest approval rating of his presidency in Post-ABC surveys and the first time his overall rating is net positive.

On the specific question of how well he has dealt with the coronavirus problem, 51 percent say they approve and 45 percent disapprove. A CNN-SSRS poll taken about three weeks ago found only 41 percent approving and 48 percent disapproving.

The president’s approval ratings have risen in part because he is judged more favorably by Democrats than he was in the Post-ABC February poll. Then, just 4 percent of Democrats approved of his overall performance, while the new poll shows 17 percent offering a positive rating. Trump also received double-digit increases in approval among adults with high school degrees or less formal education, among white women without college degrees and among those with household incomes of $50,000 or less.

On his handling of the coronavirus crisis, 25 percent of Democrats, 48 percent of independents and 88 percent of Republicans approve of the job he is doing.

Still, confidence in state governments and local hospitals and health agencies is higher than it is for the federal government when it comes to an effective coronavirus response. Almost 8 in 10 say they are confident in the states and in local hospitals and health agencies, compared with about 2 in 3 who express confidence that the federal government will be able to handle the crisis. Partisanship colors those findings, too, with just over half of Democrats but more than 8 in 10 Republicans saying they have confidence in the federal government.

The confidence levels for the federal government are slightly higher than they were during the outbreak of the Ebola virus in 2014 and comparable to levels during outbreaks of the swine flu of 2009 and Zika virus in 2016.

Fewer than 1 in 10 — 6 percent — say they have been tested for the coronavirus and slightly more than 9 in 10 say they do not know anyone who has been refused such a test. About a quarter say they believe that everyone in their area can get a test, while more than 4 in 10 say they believe some people are not able to be tested. Another third of the population has no opinion about the availability of tests where they live.

Some changes in habits, however, are nearly universal, from maintaining distance from others when out in public to adjusting to life spent at home and mostly indoors. Medical experts have said frequent and thorough hand-washing is one preventive step that everyone should be taking and the poll finds that over 8 in 10 Americans say they are doing that, though almost 2 in 10 are not washing their hands more than usual.

Other changes are not as universal but appear to be growing. About half of all adults say they have canceled travel plans. When the KFF poll asked about that in mid-February, only 13 percent said yes.

News reports have noted that many people have been buying household items like toilet paper, paper towels or disinfectant wipes in bulk while stocking up on food as well. The Post-ABC poll suggests this has accelerated in just the past two weeks. KFF asked a similar question recently and found just 35 percent saying they were stocking up on supplies and food. By now, according to the Post-ABC poll, that has risen to 61 percent.

Beyond the businesses that have shut down, many offices have asked their workers to shift to telework. The latest poll finds that 20 percent report teleworking during the past week, including 15 percent saying they have just started working from home or are doing it more often.

About 7 in 10 Americans say they or someone in their immediate family has had school or college classes canceled or moved online. Over 9 in 10 of those with children in their household have experienced the same, as have a similar share of adults under age 30.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone from March 22-25 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, 75 percent of whom were reached on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Correction: A chart showing President Trump’s approval rating was mislabeled, with lines for approval labeled as disapproval and vice versa. It has been corrected.

Scott Clement and Alauna Safarpour contributed to this report.

Reporter Nicole Ellis speaks with a mental health expert about ways to cope with anxiety, stress and adjusting to how covid-19 is changing our lives. (Video: The Washington Post)