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What’s driving the shutdown protests? It’s not economic pain.

Large majorities of Americans support the measures -- whether they’ve suffered financially or not.

- May 19, 2020

For weeks, President Trump has insisted that the economy must reopen, hailing the states choosing to relax coronavirus restrictions “safely and quickly” and arguing that the United States is defeating the pandemic. Around the country, protesters are showing up — sometimes armed — at state capitols or around local businesses to oppose state and local shutdown and social distancing orders.

One narrative suggests that these protesters are motivated by economic worries. Protesters themselves have emphasized that they want to go back to work and said that they’re unhappy with the restriction because of money worries. Sympathizing with the protesters, Ezra Klein wrote that “the economic agony is real, and they have been given no way to imagine its end, no clear understanding of the purpose behind their sacrifice.”

But are those who are suffering financially opposed to the restrictions? Not according to new data from a Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape survey. Clear majorities of Americans support the restrictions — whether their wallets are pinched or not. Here’s what we found.

How we did our research

Starting in mid-March and continuing every week since, Nationscape asks respondents a variety of questions about how they’ve been affected by the pandemic. The sample is acquired through LUCID, and the survey is administered online. Respondents are invited to the survey in proportion to their population size and then re-weighted along demographic, geographic and political dimensions.

Among other things, we asked how current events related to the pandemic had influenced their income — significantly increasing it, having no effect, significantly reducing it, or causing the loss of an individual’s primary source of income.

If economic distress is related to attitudes about covid-19 restrictions, we would expect those who have been hurt financially to oppose the shutdowns more than those who have not. But data collected between April 30 and May 6 — the latest wave of our survey, which included 6,406 respondents — show that 77 percent of those who’ve lost income support business closures. This is only slightly less than the 81 percent of those whose incomes haven’t been hurt.

We see this same pattern for other state and local policies. Those hurt financially are just about as likely as those who weren’t to support encouraging people to stay in their homes and avoid socializing with others (83 and 84 percent); canceling gatherings of more than 10 people (80 and 81 percent); closing schools and universities (78 and 82 percent); restricting plane, train and bus travel (76 and 79 percent); or restricting nonessential travel outside the home (71 and 75 percent). Strong majorities of both groups support these policies.

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In addition, we don’t see strong differences between these groups when asked whether they would be willing to re-engage with a “reopened” society. For instance, when we asked people who used to eat in restaurants whether they’d do so once again if public health officials suggested it were safe, 41 percent of those who lost income and 46 percent of those who didn’t said yes.

That small gap remains when we ask other such questions, such as whether they would go to a shopping mall (37 percent and 40 percent); fly on an airplane (31 percent and 33 percent); go to the movies (30 percent and 33 percent); attend a sporting event (26 percent and 29 percent); or go to a stadium concert (23 percent and 25 percent).

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So why are the protesters demanding society reopen?

Many people naturally assume that citizens want particular policies because those policies would help them personally — but that connection is often tenuous. That’s especially true with the covid-19 restrictions, because people might have different ideas about what would help them; while no one wants to lose income or a job, neither does that person want to risk getting infected in the workplace.

Of course, if the economy keeps getting worse, more of those whose wallets have been tightened might begin to oppose covid-19 restrictions. But our findings suggest that, for now, financially distressed Americans support state and local shutdown and social distancing orders.

73% of Democrats are wearing masks to fight the coronavirus. Only 59% of Republicans are.

Robert Griffin is a political scientist and research director of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.

Mayesha Quasem is a research assistant for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.