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ETSU poll: Small minority believes government has overreached in COVID-19 response

David Floyd • May 13, 2020 at 9:30 PM

A statewide poll by East Tennessee State University researchers suggests protesters calling stay-at-home orders government overreach represent a small, if vocal, minority of Tennesseans.

According to the results of a poll released Wednesday by the university, which covered a broad assortment of topics related to COVID-19, only 10% of those asked felt that the state and federal governments respectively have gone too far in their responses to the novel coronavirus.

“That was actually quite surprising to me,” said Kelly Foster, director of the Applied Social Research Lab at ETSU and one of the authors of the poll. Candace Forbes Bright, an associate professor of sociology at ETSU, and Morgan Kidd, the assistant director of the Applied Social Research Lab, also authored the research.

“It seems like the protests were getting a fair amount of play on social media in particular, and so you were seeing a lot of protests that were getting some airtime,” Foster said, “so it made it seem that there were maybe more people who felt the government overreach was higher, but at least for Tennessee ... that doesn’t bear out.”

The poll, which was conducted by ETSU’s Applied Social Research Lab, surveyed 618 Tennesseans by phone from April 22 to May 1 about their thoughts and concerns regarding the novel coronavirus. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.9%.

Foster said this coincided with the end stages of Tennessee’s stay-at-home order, which officially expired on April 30.

“We were fielding it during a period where Tennesseans were actively quarantining, but knew that the end of the quarantine period was coming and were sort of having to have discussions and conversations at their home and with their friends and families about the end of quarantine and what that meant,” Foster said.

About 45% of respondents felt the measures taken by the federal government to slow the spread of COVID-19 have been appropriate, while 38% believe the measures haven’t gone far enough. Similarly, 49% of Tennesseans feel steps taken by the state government had been appropriate in handling the spread of the virus. About 34% said the state hasn’t done enough.

Republicans were more likely to say the state and federal response to the epidemic has been appropriate, with 62% giving a favorable review of the state response and 67% of the federal response. Democrats were less likely, with 31% saying the state’s response has been appropriate and 16% saying the federal response has been appropriate.

However, Foster noted that most Tennesseans, 54%, had some degree of confidence in the government’s ability to limit the impact of COVID-19 — 17% saying they were very confident and 37% saying they were somewhat confident. 14% said they were not at all confident.

“What’s interesting to me is that despite general support and confidence in the government, Tennesseans do not report any desire to rush out once the government restrictions are lifted and the economy reopens,” Foster said.

Asked how quickly they would return to normal activities once government restrictions lifted, 53% of respondents said they would wait to see what happens, 27% said they would limit activities indefinitely and 17% said they would immediately return to normal.

Asked how soon they would return to day-to-day activities if no government restrictions were in place, 31% said they would wait until after the number of new cases declines significantly, 28% said they would until there are no new cases for a period of time and 22% said they would return right now. Another 13% said they would wait until after a coronavirus vaccine is developed.

Respondents were also asked about their biggest concerns about the novel coronavirus, and 33% of those polled said their biggest fear was contracting or seeing a loved one contract the illness.

About 16% expressed a general concern about the country’s ability to respond to the virus and the impact on the healthcare system. And 13% were worried about COVID-19’s impact on the economy.

Additionally, the poll found that 63% of Tennesseans were very closely following news of the virus, and 30% were closely following developments.

Foster said younger respondents, particularly those in the 18-to-34 age range, were less likely than older ones to say they were very closely following the news of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 78% of Baby Boomers versus 42% of Gen Z respondents said they were following the news very closely.

“That could speak perhaps to sort of the message over who’s most vulnerable (to) the virus,” Foster said. “That messaging I think we have to be cautious with because what gets lost in that is how we can transmit the virus to other people and the ramifications of that.”

ETSU will release additional results from the poll in the coming weeks.

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