Published May 19th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
For many Americans, vaccinations mean that we are entering a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although more Americans are getting vaccinated, and new infections are decreasing nationally, many remain cautious and are waiting a bit longer before resuming normal activities.
The results of three comprehensive real-time research surveys conducted by data company Invisibly show that some behaviors and attitudes have not changed significantly over the last 10 months.
Invisibly surveyed 1,044 people in July-August of 2020, and then again during March-April 2021 to learn just how safe we feel returning to our pre-pandemic life. Overall, the surveys suggest that outside of getting back to the office, life has not been getting back to normal as quickly as many expected.
Several factors may play a role in why many people remain reluctant to rush back into their old lives. More than a year into the pandemic people may have become accustomed to their new routines, while others may still be harboring anxiety and fear of disease.
Prairie Village resident Danya Turkmani, a Ph.D. candidate studying population health policy at the University of Kansas, said that after getting fully vaccinated joining a gym was one of the first decisions she made.
“If I was not vaccinated, I would definitely be more cautious,” she said.
The latest Invisibly survey was taken before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week that fully vaccinated Americans didn’t need to wear a mask indoors, with some exceptions. Even so, some people are concerned that the CDC’s advice, which has been quickly adopted by local governments, may be a bit hasty and confusing.
“I do think that removing the mask mandate is not the best decision for public health,” Turkmani said. “Understandably, we are all tired of wearing a mask. But while we are still learning so much about this new virus and the continuing strains that keep showing up, we need to continue taking precautions.”
The most significant shift in attitudes detected by Invisibly is that more than half of the people surveyed, 55%, are now willing to work in an office, up from just 34% in the previous survey.
Community leader and Johnson County Community College board candidate Joy Koesten, who lives in Leawood, said she is grateful for the privilege of having an option to work remotely. She and her husband were thrilled to get the vaccine, and they are now more comfortable returning to work and resuming normal activities. But even before getting the vaccine, Koesten felt that as long as businesses were taking every precaution, they could engage in many normal activities while wearing masks.
“We have been very lucky to have had service providers who took the pandemic seriously from the beginning,” Koesten said. “Because our service providers required masks in their businesses, we felt comfortable getting haircuts, going to grocery stores, and going to outdoor restaurants even before vaccines were widely available.”
Invisibly found that 63% of respondents said that they are now getting haircuts compared to 51% who were willing to go out for one nine months ago. Similarly, 55% of respondents are now willing to dine in a restaurant, up from 44% in the previous survey.
Koesten does worry that lifting the mask mandate will give people a false sense of security in the coming months.
“We are not out of the woods with this virus,” she said. “In spite of the county’s decision, we personally will continue to wear a mask when we are out and about with people we don’t know.”
Another survey question reveals that men are much more willing than women to return to normal activities in nearly every category from daily activities, to travel, to attending sporting events.
A total of 39% of respondents who identify as male said they would consider attending a large sporting event now, compared to 23% of respondents who identified as female and 12% who identified as non-binary.
But overall, fewer people, 15%, would consider attending a large sporting event now, compared to 21% back in July 2020.
The pattern that emerges from the results cited by Invisibly is that people are most wary of large crowds. While 58% of respondents said they were now willing to travel on an airplane compared to 33% who were willing to fly nine months ago, there was a 4% drop in the number of people willing to vacation in more densely crowded tourist areas.
A better understanding of how the virus is spread has more people avoiding crowds now then back in July of 2020, even after the roll out of vaccinations.
Dan Hoyt of Overland Park was so eager to visit his family in Nebraska that he organized a group of his friends from Johnson County and went on a road trip to get vaccinated in Dodge City, where there had been an excess number of vaccines and a population that was not taking advantage of them.
“Being vaccinated has allowed me the opportunity to be in more normal settings,” Hoyt said. “This does not mean that I have dropped all semblance of COVID life, but it gave me the freedom to adjust the risk in different situations.”
Hoyt still wears a mask, avoids indoor crowds, and takes reasonable precautions. Life is nowhere near normal, according to him.
“Normal for me would be feeling comfortable in a situation completely at odds with COVID safety, like being mask-less while attending a KU basketball game, or going to a club, or having a party.”
Hoyt, like many young people, said that he is resuming a more normal routine because of the vaccine and not because of the removal of the mask mandate.
“The pandemic is still going on,” he said. “The U.S. is only at about 30% vaccinated, so we are not out of the woods. People who are not yet vaccinated need to buy groceries, but they don’t need to be drinking beer at Sandhills Brewing.”
Hoyt confirms another key insight of the Invisibly study, which revealed that younger people are feeling more cautious than other ages about resuming normal activities. Respondents under 24 years old were the least likely to consider partaking in normal activities now, while those between the ages of 41 to 54 were the most likely to resume normal activities.
It may be, that for the first time, parents rather than their children, are the ones engaging in risky behavior.
Flatland contributor Inas Younis is a freelance journalist and commentator.