Some may have thought Texans would pour out of their homes when Gov. Greg Abbott announced that his stay-at-home order would expire on schedule, allowing restaurants, movie theaters and malls to begin reopening at reduced capacity. But our polling suggests that most Texans are not ready, however economically eager, to return to normal. The governor may have the ability to let businesses open, but he can’t force Texans to eat out, shop at the mall or go to the movies.
This is a tough spot for policymakers and for public health: On the one hand, Texans perceive the threats to the economy as severe, but they also appear unready to change their pandemic-induced behavior because the personal health risk to them remains more threatening than the economic ones.
Anecdotally, reactions to Abbott’s announcement were mixed, with many business owners concerned about their ability to open safely or the financial viability of doing so with a fraction of the customers.
Many Texans share those concerns. The University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that Texans — more likely to be unemployed than sick with COVID-19 — are currently expressing more concern about the economy than about the spread of the coronavirus. The relative weight of these macro-level concerns is at least partially fueling the governor’s impatience to reopen, especially given higher levels of concern among Republicans about the economy than about the virus.
But 92% of Texans acknowledge that the coronavirus is either “a significant crisis” or a “serious problem,” and they express broad support for the social distancing mandates originally spearheaded by Texas’ major metropolitan areas and now voided by the governor. In the same poll, 77% of voters support requiring Texans to stay at home except for essential activities; 80% support prohibiting the size of gatherings to 10 people or fewer; and 83% support the closure of Texas’ public schools.
Texans also say they are adjusting their personal behavior. Fewer than 1 in 10 say they continue to live their lives as they did before the pandemic. These changes in behavior are probably rooted in the relative concerns that they feel: While they give more weight to macro-level economic concerns than the pandemic, at the personal level, Texans are currently more worried about contracting the coronavirus than the potential economic consequences of the looming recession. Texans also expressed these concerns in a recent UT-Tyler/Dallas Morning News Poll, in which at least 90% reported avoiding crowded places and keeping their distance from others.
A persistent minority of Texans weigh the economic threats more heavily than the pandemic. Thirty-five percent think that keeping people at home for too long poses a bigger threat to the country than not keeping people at home for long enough. But a majority of Texans, 55%, are more concerned about not keeping people home long enough.
Like other governors, Abbott must balance efforts to reduce the inevitably negative impacts from the spread of the virus and from the economic crash caused largely by efforts to contain the spread. He has received relatively high marks for his handling of the coronavirus, and he has the trust of 58% of voters when it comes to communicating accurate information about the virus — better than President Donald Trump at 44%. But only 1 in 4 Texans think that the efforts to deal with the coronavirus in Texas are going “very well.”
The governor’s phased approach and timeline coincides with most Texans’ expectations that it will be weeks or months before the virus is sufficiently contained to resume public life. The phased openings allow for a gradual, reactive response as attitudes shift with increased testing and tracing capacity.
But, the combination of testing and tracing will be effective only for detecting an outbreak and limiting its severity — not stopping one from occurring or providing effective treatment. It’s not clear whether that will be enough to change how Texans’ calculate their own risks, and especially how they view risk in the context of “nonessential” activities, like eating in a restaurant or going to a movie theater. Given what we know about Texans’ opinions on the twin public health and economic crises facing the country, it’s unlikely that many are as ready as their governor to return to normal just yet.
Jim Henson is the director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.
Joshua Blank is research director of the Texas Politics Project at The University of Texas at Austin.