A growing number of states are starting to reopen, including Kansas and Missouri.
According to a recent Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, a majority of Americans are comfortable going to a grocery store. But most say they don’t support reopening retail shops, hair salons, restaurants, or other businesses — at least, not yet.
“It feels a little premature,” said Sara Motsinger, who lives in Kansas City's historic Northeast with her husband and two kids. “I just don’t feel like we’re ready yet.”
Fear of infection remains high, according to the poll. Limited testing and the lack of contact tracing also continue to raise concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
Without a significant increase in testing, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll reported that 65% of U.S. adults said it was a bad idea to return to work. And 80% thought it was a bad idea to open restaurants for dine-in service.
But others say they're ready to open up the economy. America Amplified, a community engagement collaboration across eight public radio stations, asked listeners to chime in via text. Tristan Autrey of Leawood, Kansas said he'd be comfortable going to restaurants and other businesses when restrictions are lifted.
“I feel that COVID is not as big of a threat as it was originally thought to be,” he said. “We still need to be cautious, but if we have more targeted isolation policies that will be better.”
So how do people decide that it’s safe or that they’re ready to get a haircut, go to a restaurant, or attend social gatherings?
Making decisions in uncertain times
“People are dealing with uncertainty all the time,” said Tim Pleskac, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas who co-authored the 2019 book called “Taming Uncertainty."
"And we should actually look at how they become really effective at doing that."
When faced with uncertainty, “people often rely on a toolkit of heuristics, or rules of thumb,” Pleskac said.
“For example, we might use a rule that says, ‘Do what our neighbor does’ in terms of deciding whether to go to a restaurant or going to get a haircut,” he said.
“Often these rules can be quite effective and help us make good decisions with little to no information. Sometimes they may lead to some errors.”
As policymakers put guidelines in place for reopening, Pleskac suggests they keep in mind how people will make decisions about whether or not to go out.
But, in terms of policymakers, there’s one big challenge: the messaging hasn’t been consistent between cities, counties, and states — all with different reopening dates and restrictions.
“It’s not like we’re getting clear guidance from all the sources that we trust,” said Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. “You know, different political parties, different levels of government, different people are getting very different information.”
“So that’s one big factor,” Hall said. “People are not on the same page.”
Social media as an influencer
Social media will also play a role as people start to post photos on Facebook of in-person visits, rather than Zoom calls, or images of meals at dine-in restaurants on Instagram.
“We talk about the FOMO, the fear of missing out, and the need that we all have to connect with each other,” said Kansas City resident Sara Motsinger. “I know I’m going to see some people in the coming days out doing their normal activities.”
“And I’m going to try to fight that urge to be one of those people, just for safety's sake," she said and added that Motsinger's husband serves as one of the caregivers for her older in-laws, who live independently.
"It's really important to us that we not be carriers of anything that would be a detriment for their health."
KU’s Jeff Hall published a study last year suggesting that a balanced diet of social nutrition, including time alone, helps people thrive.
“My work, I would characterize it as looking at it as the intersection between off-line and online relationships, friendship and our social interaction behaviors,” he said.
Hall said one’s social network will likely influence decisions on when to venture out again, but it may not outweigh perceived risks.
“In some sense, the people who you are sheltered at home with are going to be the biggest factors in your decision making,” Hall said.
“The people you are most concerned about exposing risk to, people who have pre-existing conditions, or the elderly. This is going to weigh heavily in their decision-making process.
“If people have made up their mind that it’s too risky to endanger my loved one at home, even for me to go out," he said, "they’re going to continue to be really, really careful."
Next week, even more restrictions will loosen in the metro area, and some residents will be able to go to the gym, drink at a bar, visit a community center, or take their kids to the playground.
But how do they trust the environment is safe, and what safety measures do they want in place?
Surveying what area residents – and audiences – want
Jackson County, Missouri, posted a survey, asking residents how willing they’d be to go to a bar, restaurant, nail salon, or place of worship — and the influence of social distancing and safety measures.
Many arts and cultural organizations, from movie theaters to botanical gardens to museums, are also circulating surveys to assess what audiences want, and what would bring them back.
“I think we’re going to have to examine everything we do,” said Anne Manning, director of education and interpretation at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “So kind of starting with the basics, opening our doors, and figuring out how to do that well. And the in-gallery experience.”
Hundreds of arts organizations around the country, including the Nelson-Atkins, are part of a national public engagement study focused on the nonprofit arts sector, which will help provide data. And the Nelson’s survey will also gauge what’s most important for their own visitors.
“Everything from staff wearing masks to visitors wearing masks and social distancing, and procedures in the restaurant and café, and limiting numbers of people in the galleries,” she said. “All those sorts of safety measures that we’re all considering.”
The museum’s survey remains open through Friday, but, so far, Manning said, most respondents are not comfortable with larger gatherings. Cultural festivals, such as Chinese New Year or Passport to India, usually bring in 30,000 people a year.
“Not a lot of people are ready to go to events that are larger than 50,” she said.
Trust, said KU's Tim Pleskac, is going to be an important aspect.
“We’ve kind of faced a stable environment, and now, things are unstable,” he said. “You want to be able to communicate, 'Look you can trust me.' Companies and businesses want to communicate that.”