In a celebratory tweet, President Trump on Thursday announced that he would hold a news conference detailing his plan for scaling back social distancing measures meant to contain the novel coronavirus that’s infected more than half a million Americans. He’s been teasing the idea for weeks, tempering his endorsement of demands that Americans stay at home with insistences that people would soon be able to return to life as normal — or, at least, some semblance thereof.
The response from experts has been one of concern. Rescinding distancing efforts without establishing systems for tracking and containing outbreaks of the virus is seen as opening the door for a broad resurgence of the virus, just as new daily case totals are trending downward. Even deferring to states on when to reopen, as reporting suggests Trump plans to do — and, frankly, as the situation would require, given that states are the ones which have introduced the measures — could be problematic. Such an announcement might signal that distancing isn’t as big a deal anymore to people in areas where it is.
New polling from Pew Research Center suggests that Americans are more likely to side with the experts than with Trump. By a 2-to-1 margin, they are more concerned that distancing measures will be rescinded too quickly than too slowly. There’s a partisan split on the question, but not as big a one as you might think. Among conservative Republicans, views are about split. Among moderate Republicans, a large majority is more worried about moving too quickly than too slowly.
The partisan divide narrows when you overlay income. Wealthier Democrats are much more worried about rescinding the orders too soon than are lower-income Democrats. Lower-income Republicans, on the other hand, are more worried than wealthier ones about moving too quickly.
Americans also generally give Trump low marks on his handling of the pandemic — particularly in terms of his presentation of its risks. A majority think that Trump has made the coronavirus outbreak seem better than it is. About 4 in 10 — mostly Republican — think that he’s presented the risks fairly. Almost no one thinks that he’s overplayed the dangers it poses.
This question overlaps with the one of how quickly distancing restrictions should be repealed. After all, if people think Trump is understating the danger of the virus, they’re likely going to be more skeptical of his assertions that we can move more quickly to reopen businesses and normal activity.
That contrasts with views of how Trump has approached the pandemic. Two-thirds of Americans, according to Pew’s polling, think that Trump was too slow to take major steps to address the pandemic. Here, again, there’s a partisan divide — but an unbalanced one. Moderate Republicans are divided on their views of how quickly Trump acted. Only conservative Republicans overwhelmingly think Trump acted quickly.
That said, Republicans in places where there has been more of an impact from the virus (measured in the number of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in a county) are more critical of how quickly Trump acted.
Perhaps the most telling assessment offered in Pew’s polling is a question that was stark in its presentation: Is the worst yet to come in the outbreak?
Nearly three-quarters of Americans said it is.
That lack of confidence in what’s to come clearly overlaps with concern over rescinding distancing measures too quickly. Americans have seen the virus spread quickly and watched death tolls rise — despite Trump’s repeated assertions about what was to come. That they think things will get worse than tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands infected and broad restrictions on activity and business would seem to speak to a lack of confidence in the government’s approach to the virus and to the uncertainty of the moment.
Assertions that America is close to being ready to get back to normal coming from the president who insisted that things wouldn’t deviate from normal in the first place, assertions to that effect coming from someone most Americans think has downplayed the risk of the virus, are treated as one might expect.
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