A political divide? Ideology colors perception of virus, recovery

DOVER — COVID-19 has become the latest fault line in our politically fractured society. Is the virus overblown — even a hoax, or is it a potential world-altering threat for which we must drastically change our lives?

Depends who you ask.

With each day the coronavirus quarantine continues, pressure grows from some quarters to reopen business, to return to a semblance of normalcy. Protests led by the right wing have taken place in several states, with a rally in Delaware scheduled for Friday.

While it’s certainly an exaggeration to say every Democrat supports continuing the quarantine and every Republican wants to end it, the issue does break down along familiar lines.

“You say public health isn’t a party issue, but in this case the reaction has been pretty polarizing,” said University of Delaware communication professor Paul Brewer, who studies how media informs public perception on issues, especially those related to science.

A Pew Research Center survey from March said 39 percent of Republicans thought people were overreacting to the virus, compared to 25 percent of Democrats. On the flip side, the same poll found 48 percent of Democrats said people aren’t treating the virus as a serious threat, with 31 percent of Republicans saying the same.

A Quinnipiac University national poll released earlier this month reported 85 percent of Democrats expect the crisis to get worse, while 55 percent of Republicans said the same, and a University of Delaware poll found a similar divide between members of the two parties.

In some ways, this is just the latest science-based topic on which conservatives and liberals disagree. Science may not be inherently political (facts don’t care about your feelings, after all), but there’s a gulf between Americans on subjects such as climate change depending on political ideology.

An October 2019 survey from Pew reported 54 percent of American adults believe policies aimed at reducing the effects of climate change are helpful, but while 71 percent of Democrats feel this way, only 34 percent of Republicans do, it says. (That issue does break down a bit along age as well, per Pew.)

As is typical, people who strongly identify with one party or the other follow “signals, cues from party leaders,” Dr. Brewer said.

While Republicans are generally more inclined to distrust science, the boundaries can get blurry for some issues, such as vaccination or genetically modified organisms, he noted.

But when it comes to COVID-19, at least, opinions vary across the political spectrum.

A study from Stanford University earlier this month using location data from cell phones found areas with more Republicans see less social distancing.

“The raw partisan differences partly reflect the fact that Democrats are more likely to live in the dense, urban areas hardest hit by the crisis, and to be subject to policy restrictions — in other words, to face stronger individual incentives for social distancing,” it states.

“Even after controlling carefully for such factors, however, the partisan gaps remain statistically and economically significant. While our evidence does not permit us to conclusively pin down the ultimate causes of partisan divergence, the patterns are consistent with the messaging from politicians and media having played an important role.”

An analysis from a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania indicates Republicans became more concerned about COVID-19 in mid-March, around the time the president and some of his allies began painting it as a major threat.

While much of the emphasis on reopening may be driven by signals from conservative media and politicians, there are plenty of people who want the economy to reopen because they’re worried about their finances. So far, about 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment, including 71,000 in Delaware, and countless small business owners fear they’re on the verge of going bankrupt.

Around the nation, some governors have taken steps to resume life as usual. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, reopened some businesses, such as gyms, bowling alleys and barbershops, last week and will allow more to function this week.

Though there are exceptions — contrast the measured reaction of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who has resisted pressure from the White House, with fellow Republican and Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who controversially said seniors should be willing to die for the sake of the economy and their descendants’ well-being — members of the GOP are more likely to support easing the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic.

“Given that research from political psychology indicates that conservatives are, on average, more concerned about pathogens and threats in their environments than liberals are, the fact that conservatives are significantly less likely than liberals to be engaging in these preventative behaviors is surprising,” UD communication professor Danna Young said in a statement.

“This discrepancy may have resulted from the cues coming from conservative elected officials and media personalities who, throughout the first half of March, signaled that COVID was being overblown by both media and Democrats.”

In the weeks before the virus became a public health crisis in the United States, many conservative media personalities, chiefly those on Fox News, dismissed COVID-19 as a made-up threat that was being unfairly used to hurt the public’s perception of the president. They backed off, but it didn’t take long for many to begin clamoring to reopen the economy once more.

President Donald Trump has flip-flopped on the virus, stating in February it would disappear “like a miracle” before saying a few weeks later he “felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic.”

Similarly, he’s wavered on reopening, including tweeting in March the cure cannot be worse than the disease and then extending social distancing guidelines anyway. The president also insisted he has “total authority“ on reopening states, only to back down a short time later.

Earlier this month the president tweeted that people need to “liberate” three states with Democratic governors and coronavirus-related restrictions, but last week he criticized Gov. Kemp of Georgia for being too aggressive in giving businesses the OK.

Predictably, Republicans overwhelmingly approve of the president’s response to the virus, while Democrats do not, per polls.

In Delaware, Gov. John Carney has resisted calls to reopen immediately, stating the process will be governed by data and will put public health first.

“We won’t turn the lights back on or move the dimmer switch up a day too soon or a day too late, but we will err on the side of making sure that people are safe and secure, making sure that we’re following the science, that we have the tools we need to test, to isolate and to track,” he said.

Following guidelines from the White House, he wants to see 28 days of declining cases before reopening in earnest.

Unsurprisingly, Delaware lawmakers appear to differ on the issue largely based on political affiliation. While House Minority Leader Danny Short, a Seaford Republican, chalked the distinction up to ideology rather than politics for politics’ sake, he’s one of those who believes businesses should be allowed to reopen at least gradually.

Daniel B. “Danny” Short

Both he and Senate Minority Leader Gerald Hocker, an Ocean View Republican, questioned why more stores, such as furniture outlets, can’t open by appointment only, as gun shops and some other businesses have done. Asked about this, a spokesman for Gov. Carney said only that there is an appeal process businesses can go through.

While House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf agrees some businesses could operate by appointment, he is supportive of the slower approach.

“I’m not sure Trump is worried about Delaware,” the Rehoboth Beach Democrat said when asked about the president calling for a quick reopening. “That’s our job and we have the right to do what we want.”

Tough decisions will have to be made, he noted. While the two parties are working closely together in the First State to find a solution, there’s no answer that will satisfy everyone, Rep. Schwartzkopf said.

Peter Schwartzkopf

But for Middletown resident Lisa Marie McCulley, the issue is simple: The government is infringing on inalienable rights and needs to end the lockdown now.

She’s the founder of the Facebook group Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine, which has about 4,900 residents and is planning the rally at Legislative Hall in protest Friday. At least 200 people are expected, according to Ms. McCulley.

The group supports “the U.S. Constitution and the fundamental principle that the power of government is derived from the consent of the people,” who do not agree with the lockdown, she said.

According to Ms. McCulley, the group has a mix of Democrats and Republicans as members.

A look at the page indicates strong support for President Trump and disapproval of Gov. Carney, along with posts about how the virus threat is overblown and Democrats and the media are using it to hurt the president.

It’s also drawn backlash, with some people joining just to mock the sincere members. Additionally, someone started a group called Delawareans Against Delawareans Against Excessive Quarantine, which has about 1,600 members.

Ms. McCulley believes new evidence indicates COVID-19 is more widespread than believed. A study from the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released last week, for instance, says there are many more cases — and thus the fatality rate is much lower — than conventional wisdom holds.

Nonetheless, most health experts have called for continuing the shutdown for the time being, emphasizing the country is a long way away from the large-scale testing and other measures needed to return to normal.

Ms. McCulley said she urges people, including her group, to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends social distancing, including staying home if possible, and wearing a mask when around others.

She, and presumably most of the Facebook group, support steps being taken by some Republican governors to reopen their states, though Ms. McCulley said she was unaware the president had recently criticized Gov. Kemp of Georgia for his approach.

People may not agree about how the country and the state got to this point, but members of the Facebook group are focused on respectfully making their opinions heard and trying to move Delaware forward, she said.

A post on the Delaware State News Facebook page asking about views on the virus and social distancing drew a range of responses, with more than 200 comments in less than 48 hours. Predictably, people who said they trust President Trump more than Gov. Carney when it comes to COVID-19 favor reopening.

The governor announced last week a process aimed at restarting Delaware’s economy and is seeking input from the public. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/3bEmIHE.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

Have a question, tip, or resources about the coronavirus pandemic? Submit it to our newsroom and we’ll do what we can to provide answers.