Revised version was published by Washington Post / Monkey Cage under the title "These three governors are reopening their states faster than their voters want"

When it comes to the timing of reopening their states’ economies, some governors may be moving faster than their voters prefer.

President Trump’s Coronavirus task force has recommended that states begin reopening their economies only after a 14-day downward trend in COVID-19 cases. Despite the absence of any such trends, the Republican Governors in several southern states, including Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida, this week announced their intent to immediately begin reopening.

President Trump seemingly contradicted his own government’s recommendations  by quickly endorsing these reopening policies, commenting: “He [Georgia Governor Brian Kemp]” knows what he’s doing.

Explaining his decision, Kemp commented: "We have more people moving around, we're probably going to have to see our cases continue to go up, but we're a lot better prepared for that now than we were over a month ago." Tennessee Governor Bill Lee stated, “Our Economic Recovery Group is working with industry leaders around the clock so that some businesses can open as soon as Monday, April 27." Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in turn, asserted that his state is poised to “bounce back in a very thoughtful, safe, and efficient way.”

What do the citizens of Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida think of their Governors’ plans? We just completed a multi-state survey of public opinion regarding COVID-19 designed, in part, to answer this question.

We asked respondents when they thought the country should reopen the economy and resume business activity. Possible responses ranged from “immediately” to “after more than eight weeks”.

It turns out that residents of the several states that are about to reopen are in less of a hurry to do so than their governors. Across all three states, only 12% of respondents or fewer supported an immediate reopening. Sizeable majorities in each state -- between 57 and 60% -- prefer to wait a month or more prior to reopening the economy. On average, residents in all three states preferred to wait 4-6 weeks before reopening.

In an era of partisan polarization, Democrats and Republicans are notably in agreement that it is not yet time to open. Democrats do, on average, prefer to wait a bit longer before reopening. In all three states, Democrats favor waiting about 6 weeks. In contrast, Republicans support waiting about 4 weeks.

In addition to the modest partisan differences, we also find that those individuals who may perceive themselves as more proximate to the virus are more supportive of waiting to reopen the economy. Those who indicated either that they had COVID currently or previously (diagnosed or undiagnosed), or that they were unsure whether or not they had it, preferred to wait longer to reopen the economy than their counterparts who responded that they had not had COVID-19 themselves. Similar patterns emerge for the presence of COVID-19 in respondents’ neighborhoods. In every case, proximity to COVID-19 cases appears to predict a desire to wait longer to reopen the economy. Similarly, we find that African Americans-- who have been particularly hard hit by the virus-- were more strongly supportive of slower re-opening; although, again, very few white respondents were supportive of immediate re-opening.

About 28% of respondents across the three states trust their state government “a lot”. However, both Democrats and Republicans trust experts far more: 47% for the Centers for Disease Control, 55% for scientists and researchers, and an impressive 68% for hospitals and doctors.

What do residents of these states think of their governors’ leadership? Overall, majorities of respondents in each state approve of their governor’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis: 53% in Tennessee, 52% in Florida, and 56% in Georgia. While these numbers look strong on their face, they are tepid compared to their fellow governors. Across our surveys of all 50 states, an average of 65% of respondents approved of their governors’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Perhaps due to a combination of admonitions from his public health advisors and recognition of public discomfort with perceived premature reopening, as reflected in our surveys, Trump reversed himself the day after endorsing Georgia’s reopening policy: “I told the governor of Georgia Brian Kemp that I disagree strongly with his decision to open certain facilities.”  

This is a case of bad policy (according to CDC guidelines) being bad politics. Recent political science research suggests that elected leaders are often surprisingly uninformed about the policy preferences of their constituents. Our research suggests that voters are listening to the experts; perhaps governors would be well advised to listen to their voters.

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