By Scott Canon and Celia Llopis-Jepsen
LAWRENCE, Kansas — A full two-thirds of Kansans say they don’t personally know someone who’s been infected with the coronavirus.
Yet an overwhelming number of respondents to a survey say the pandemic remade their lives, mostly for the worse.
They talk of worry, boredom. It has cost most of them money. In a time of one-way grocery aisles and when you need to wear a mask to go into a bank, they speak of a future that has hardly ever looked so gloomily foggy.
“It’s changed everyone’s lives,” said one respondent to a survey commissioned by public media project America Amplified for the Kansas News Service. “It’s been hard staying away from everyone I know and love.”
Still, that respondent reflected another common view of the poll — that the pain of stay-at-home orders felt worthwhile.
Kansans essentially said the damage to commerce and community makes sense as a way to keep a lethal virus from killing more people. They give state and local government higher marks than Washington, but that’s a common finding in polls.
If anything, most people said the federal response to a pandemic that’s killed 100,000-plus Americans came too late.
“Attacking the virus from the moment we were aware would have saved countless lives,” one respondent said. Another said officials should not have “play(ed) it off as a hoax.”
A sizable minority, nearly a fourth, said too much emphasis has been put on combating the virus. After all, unemployment claims in Kansas have never come so suddenly, or in such volume. (The survey was conducted from May 28 to June 4, before reports that the national jobless rate defied economists’ projections and improved, if not as much as initially thought, in May.) “I wanted” the state, said one respondent, “to let us get things open sooner.”
Notably, white people appear far less worried about the pandemic. Only 32% of white respondents said they were very concerned, compared to 55% of people of color. Findings throughout the pandemic have noted that people of color — they generally have less access to health care and face other factors that put their health in jeopardy — have been far more likely to catch COVID-19 and to die from it.
More than three-fourths of respondents of color said that the pandemic felt stressful or very stressful, compared to barely half of the white people in the survey.
People of color were significantly more likely to say they’ve lost a job, been furloughed, seen their work hours cut or lost health care benefits.
And while only about 21% of white people personally know someone who got the coronavirus, about 35% of people of color know someone who’s become sick from the virus.
“It’s quite a bit different for African Americans,” said Natalie Pennie, a black woman from Topeka who spoke with the Kansas News Service after taking the survey.
She got laid off from a part-time job and found herself struggling to pay her bills.
“The price of food is outrageous,” she said, forcing her to choose between the grocery bill and a pending car insurance premium. “With your income being more limited now, you’ve got to make a decision on what’s more important.”
Yet she also talked about the collective need to balance the economic impact of stay-at-home orders against keeping the virus from spreading.
“I’d rather have my life and be broke,” she said, “than take a chance and go out there and get sick and then die.”
Public health vs the economy
In fact, Kansans in the survey generally maintained serious worries about the pandemic, even though the poll came after nearly all of the statewide restrictions have been lifted.
That’s another way Kansas reflects the national mood.
“People still think the health risks are more important to address than opening the economy,” said Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “They’re deeply concerned about the economy.”
She said national polls reveal a similar sense of angst about both an economic recession and a fatal disease.
“People really, really are concerned about what this all means, what it’s going to be for them and their families and whether there’ll ever be a vaccine,” Bowman said. “There is an enormous amount of anxiety right now.”
Among the concerns: 65% worry about getting infected, or a relative or friend getting sick; 63% worry about the economic impact of the virus; 57% fret about how long the virus will alter their lives.
When they filled in blanks on the survey, respondents talked about elderly relatives they couldn’t visit. About the uncertainty of their business. About the tedium. One respondent said, “I feel cooped up and sad.”
Stressed and uncertain
Kansans in the survey see a future far different from the recent past. Nearly three-fourths said more people will work from home. Almost two-thirds said people will be reluctant to attend sporting events, go to concerts or meet in large crowds. About half expect we’ll go out to eat less.
“It’s already starting to do damage to the economy and what we think of as normal American life,” Jon Russell said in an interview after taking the survey. He’s 24 and says the pandemic is partly responsible for him being out of work.
Other respondents said, basically, this too shall pass. Some complained of what they see as an overreaction to the virus, a response that’s made a mess of a previously robust economy.
But more often, they spoke despairingly. One respondent talked of being “in a world of disbelief.” Another said, “It’s been very isolating and depressing at times.”
Those dreary responses — there were exceptions, particularly people grateful for more time with their families — defined the results.
“The stress levels seem amazing high,” said Martin Hamburger, a Democratic political consultant who has run campaigns in Kansas for decades.
Consider all those people who’ve lost a job, a business, who’ve been furloughed or seen their pay cut.
“A lot of those people are down to no money coming in all of a sudden,” Hamburger said. “That’s a pretty serious thing.”
Stress levels appear to run highest among the young and those living in densely populated situations — renters and urban residents.
Democrats also were more likely than Republicans to say the pandemic made them very stressed.
Red and blue
A number of issues split along party lines. Most glaringly, it’s clear that Republicans put far more faith in what President Donald Trump says about the pandemic (56% have a great or good deal of faith in what he says) than Democrats (16%).
“Trump is doing a fantastic job,” Mark Swisher said in an interview after taking the survey. He also gave Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly high marks. “It’s not her fault if the virus rolls up.”
He’s a Republican who lives in a nursing home in Onaga, Kansas. He thinks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could have been better prepared for the pandemic. Now he hopes progress is made to fight the disease.
“The world has forever changed,” Swisher said. “I hope it’s within six months that they have a vaccine.”
Quarantines have raised the possibility of complicating the August primary and November general election. An overwhelming number of Democrats, 79%, said voting by mail is secure and should be encouraged. Just 38% of Republicans agreed.
Protests over the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police escalated only after the survey had begun. In response to open-ended questions, a handful of respondents volunteered that those protests might spread the virus.
Yet people maintain their faith in scientists to lead them through a public health crisis. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said that people have long tended to trust scientists over politicians.
That confidence in real expertise, she said, shows up in the sacrifices they were willing to make.
“They were giving up the ability to interact with people who were their friends and their other members of their family and their children and grandchildren, or their grandparents,” she said. “It would make no sense to say that you think it was a worthwhile trade-off if you didn’t believe the science.”
About the poll
The poll was commissioned by public media project America Amplified for the Kansas News Service. It was conducted by Hertz Research. The results are based on 616 responses to an online survey. While the demographics of the respondents generally reflect those of Kansas as a whole — by income, age, sex, geography, political affiliation and race — the results have been statistically weighted to match the state’s population even more accurately. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4%. See the results of all the questions and the pollster’s analysis here.
America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that uses community engagement to inform and stregthen local, regional and national journalism.
Scott Canon is managing editor of the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @ScottCanon or email scott (at) kcur (dot) org.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health and education for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celialj_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.