As the national conversation turns, perhaps prematurely, from flattening the curve to reopening businesses and restarting life, we’re all trying to figure out which parts of normal we’re comfortable resuming. Is it OK to bubble with another family this summer? Is it fine to go to the beach? Is it time to return to the office? When can we have child care again? As we enter this next phase of the coronavirus response, what’s reasonable and what’s not seem more and more determined not by government decree but by who you are, what your circumstances require, and sometimes just by how you feel.
Late last month, we asked readers what they think they’ll be comfortable doing when their city or state lifts stay-at-home orders. In other words: When you’re allowed to do these things, will you? More than 6,100 people responded to the survey, which included questions about getting back to office work and routine errands, child care, dining and entertainment, travel, and interpersonal habits we can’t believe we had to ask about, like hugging.
This survey was designed to identify how Slate readers feel and should not be taken as representative of the U.S. population. But the results did show noteworthy patterns among respondents. A hesitation to resume activities runs deep, though people who identified as Republicans were more willing to get back to normal than those who identified as Democrats, often by margins of 20 to 30 percentage points. Democrats were twice as likely as Republicans to answer a question with “I don’t know.”
Some activities, such as going to movie theaters, shaking hands, or hosting parties, remain a relic of the Before Times. Others, such as going to national parks and visiting the doctor for routine checkups, seem doable to many. Men were more likely than women to pick “yes”—as in, “yes, I will do this thing”—in almost every category. Young people age 18 to 24 were more likely to say yes to getting back to the things they used to do, sometimes by large margins, particularly activities that involve socializing.
Many respondents also wrote in to explain their answers to our questions and elaborate on their feelings. Quite a few parents, such as Dina in California, wrote about their need to get their kids back to day care or school: “It’s just not healthy for any of us. … She gets way too much screen time, and we get no work done. It’s miserable and unsustainable.” Others wrote about the need to visit the doctor, get a haircut, or go back to work—with proper precautions. Will in Alabama notes that some activities might not be a choice: “My ‘Yeses’ are actually ‘Maybe, if I fucking gotta.’ ” Others, such as Gretchen from Arizona, grappled with the uncertainty and anxiety of the future: “All of my ‘I don’t knows’ are the ones that are the most emotional to me. They all seem like they are a bad idea based on the current situation, but I really don’t think I can go an entire year without hugging someone. … My parents are in their 80s, and are out of state, and I don’t want the last time I saw them to be the last time ever!” Below are the results.
Work and Routine Activities
Routine activities and errands—such as returning to the office, shopping at nonessential businesses, and getting a haircut—produced some of the most evenly divided yes and no responses, when compared with questions about kids, travel, and entertainment.
Returning to the office tied with sending kids back to school for the largest amount of uncertainty in the survey, with 20 percent of respondents checking “I don’t know.” Many people wrote that they hoped to keep working from home, some permanently, but others had bosses who’d made it clear that they were eager for employees to get back, or simply had to return for much-needed paychecks.
“I will go back to my job so I can pay rent. Period. I don’t have the option of working from home, so when my store reopens, I’ll be going back.”
“The boss of my company has informed us that we will be back in the office in two weeks, as long as the governor doesn’t extend the stay at home order, and it looks like he probably won’t. I’m concerned about it. I share an office with someone, and I’m getting some messaging from my boss about ‘clean desk initiatives’ and sanitation practices, but … if someone is an asymptomatic carrier, we are all sealed in a building getting prolonged exposure to that person, and maybe not knowing about it for weeks. I don’t understand why it’s a rush to get back in the office. We’ve been handling everything working from home.”
“I’m a psychotherapist, so to go back to the office would require me to sit in close proximity to about 20 different people a week for an hour at a time each. … As long as insurance continues to cover telehealth sessions, I will keep doing that for the foreseeable future, even though I absolutely despise doing Zoom therapy—it’s better than the alternative.”
“I’m 78, have immunity issues, and have mild COPD. Getting the bug would almost certainly kill me. On the other hand, I need the money I get from working at the local supermarket. It’s going to be a tough call.”
—Norman, New York
“I’m already shopping in person at liquor stores—if I can do the mental gymnastics required to call that essential, I expect I’ll be able to go to a nonessential business like my local bookstore once it opens.”
“I’m extremely conflicted. Personally, I want to avoid crowds and avoid being in a store where I may try on clothes someone carrying the virus just tried on. However, I’m also a fashion designer. My company, and my job stability, is partially dependent on people returning to stores. How can I want people to shop from the selfish perspective of hopefully keeping my job, while also not wanting to do that myself?”
—Jessica, New York
“It feels stupid dangerous to go to a hair salon, but I really need it for my mental health. I live alone and am getting increasingly depressed. My only coping mechanism is to put the pandemic out of my mind, but I’m reminded every time I look in the mirror or hop on a conference call. I can’t do blond at home, so I’m hoping that if my hairdresser and I both wear masks and are the only ones there, it will be OK.”
“It’s insane thinking you can get personal services done like a haircut or mani/pedi while socially distancing! I’m not dying over beauty. I’ll be DIY’ing it until the virus is well under control. And the beauty police can take a hike for judging otherwise.”
Our question about resuming routine doctor’s appointments got one of the highest tallies of yeses. It also offered some of the smallest margins among different demographics. Men and women said yes to going to the doctor in nearly equal numbers. It was also the smallest margin between Democrats and Republicans, with 60 percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans saying they would schedule health care appointments. That still leaves plenty who remain apprehensive.
“I’m turning 40 this summer, with a family history of breast cancer, and will need to start getting mammograms. And my son needs to go to the dentist. But what is ‘necessary’ and what is ‘elective’ now?”
“I have chronic health issues, that while not acutely life-threatening, do significantly impact my quality of life. I was undergoing testing in order to pursue new treatment approaches when my state’s stay-at-home order was issued. It is hard to put those doctor’s appointments on hold when I know I might find a way to feel much better.”
Many respondents hoped for expanded absentee voting or voting by mail for the remaining primaries and the November general election. But barring that, many swore to vote by any means necessary: “swim through COVID,” “draped in plastic wrap,” and “crawl through clouds of Ebola” were just a few choice phrases respondents used to describe what they would do to vote. One notable finding: While respondents age 18 to 24 were often more likely than their elders to say they’d be comfortable resuming an activity, voting was one place where they backed off. Compared with respondents ages 25 to 65, fewer young people expressed a willingness to vote in person on Election Day. People over 65 were also less willing to venture to the polls.
“I will vote by mail but if not available because Republicans are trying to suppress voting, I will not be disenfranchised. I would rather be dead.”
“I would want to show ID when I vote in person on Election Day.”
—Charlie, New York
“I would not ‘feel comfortable’ going out to vote in person. I, however, live in Mississippi and have no reason to believe that the officials of this state will make any allowances for voting other than in person. And I will vote.”
Questions about child care saw some of the thinnest gender gaps, with moms and dads in largely equal numbers wanting to send kids back to day care, school, or camp—or keep them home. Sending kids back to K–12 produced a high level of uncertainty: 20 percent of respondents said they didn’t know whether they’d send their kids if their districts reopened, the same percentage who were unsure about returning to the office. And the two are correlated for many respondents.
“I need some time away from my kids! Either a nanny/babysitter or back in school. I don’t care. I need a break!!!!!”
“I wouldn’t send my kids back to day care because … my kid and his day care is bar none the reason I get sick above all others.”
“I would hire a nanny or babysitter as soon as possible. … I have a newborn and a 6-year-old, and if I don’t get help soon, I see myself spiraling into [postpartum depression]. I would hire someone I trusted who is also following proper social distancing as much as possible.”
“Once we [send the kids to day care], we may as well do everything else. I am so tempted, because I am struggling so much with my kids, but they are so touchy-feely and unhygienic—if we send them to camp/afterschool we may as well just have a houseparty and bob for apples.”
“If my office ‘allows’ us to return to work, I assume that means work from home is no longer allowed. Therefore, I would need some sort of child care, whether I felt it was safe or not. Likewise with school. I don’t have the luxury to choose not to send my children to school if schools reopen.”
“My high school kid is really struggling to focus in online school, and I’m at work and not able to monitor him. It feels like the same result as if he had dropped out, and I’m worried about his ability to keep up.”
“The kids need school and activities. My kids are 9 and 5. They have become anxious, lonely, and bored, all of which contribute to more emotional acting out and some noticeable depression (especially in the older child). It is worth the relatively small risk to send them out so that they can be more socially stable.”
“My daughter has asthma and is high risk. I dread having to send her back to school before a vaccine. I may not, even if schools open. For us, this doesn’t feel theoretical—it’s life or death.”
We also heard from a few teachers who aren’t certain about the prospect of going back.
“When we reopen, I’ll be headed to the school building, even if it’s unsafe. I’m dedicated to the kids and in a low-risk category, so if I get sick it’s likely not the end of the world. I’ll be fighting tooth and nail for safe policies, the right to wear masks (usually we’re not allowed to cover our face or heads at school except for religious reasons), and even if other teachers are relaxing the rules, I’ll be very strict with my students. They deserve to have an education without getting sick and killing their grandparents.”
“If schools go back in the fall, I have no choice but to be around 1,200 kids and 300 adults a day. I’m terrified, as my partner is autoimmune compromised.”
Few respondents will be thrilled to send their kids to day camp if allowed, and even fewer were eager to send kids to sleepaway camp. But as with sending kids back to school, many parents are relying on camps to provide summer child care.
“I said yes to a lot of kid-based [survey questions] because working full time and having a 6-year-old has been impossible. I don’t necessarily think these are the safest out of all the things listed, but I need some other form of child care, so I’m willing to take the associated risks. My daughter’s summer camp has confirmed it will run with lots of precautions in place, and I’m planning on sending her.”
“I don’t know if I would send my child to day camp because I worry about that being a place the virus can spread. They are outside, and that seems safer, but I don’t know that it is a place that is clean—not washing hands enough, touching shared objects. It’s hard to keep kids 6 feet apart. But if I have to go back to work full time, the only other option is sending her away to my sister, who is a teacher and would be off. And I hate the idea of not seeing my child all summer so I can work.”
Dining, Entertainment, and Socializing
People age 18 to 24 were more likely than any other age group to say they are comfortable going to a restaurant, to a movie, or on a date. Entertainment-related questions also represented one of the largest gulfs between Democrats and Republicans, with Republicans expressing far more eagerness to resume these activities.
Pretty much everyone prefers outdoor to indoor dining, but there is a real partisan divide when you dig into the numbers. About 71 percent of Republicans are OK with eating outdoors at a restaurant, versus only 34 percent of Democrats; 50 percent of Republicans say “yes” to eating indoors with social distancing measures, while only 13 percent of Democrats say the same.
“I have been craving a meal at a certain Mexican restaurant that has free queso with your chips, a ‘salsa bar,’ margaritas you need two hands to hold, and the best carne asada tacos ever. It seems a small thing, but it makes me salivate to think about after over a month of cooking at home. Also, the restaurant is locally owned and operated, so my money will stay local for sure.”
“As much as I have missed eating out and want to support our local restaurants, I don’t see how they can provide the distancing and cleanliness required. We are a tourist destination with most coming from Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. I am concerned that Georgia and Florida leadership has not taken the situation seriously and thus many tourists from those states could travel here carrying the virus into our restaurants.”
—Geneva, North Carolina
About even numbers would attend a dinner or host a dinner, but no one’s in the mood for a party, with 89 percent of respondents saying no.
“Truthfully, I don’t think I could stand the change in behavior that would be necessary for an in-home dinner party. Every interaction would be so strange—do we just freely pass dishes and wine bottles? Should we not all squeeze onto the couch for a movie night? How do board games work now? My friendships are strong enough to survive the awkwardness and boundaries, but it would be heartbreaking to pull ourselves back from connection again and again.”
Almost no one wants to go to a movie theater: 91 percent of respondents—the highest tally of the survey—rejected the idea of going to a theater without social distancing policies. And 71 percent of respondents are hesitant to go to the theater even with distancing measures.
“I absolutely live for movies. I’m 74. I have doubts that I will ever attend a movie again, I cannot imagine feeling safe.”
“I would potentially go to an outdoor concert if it was guaranteed that we would all be really spread out and there were spread-out areas for going to the bathroom so not everyone was clustered around the port-a-potties, or ideally if it was short enough that I wouldn’t need to use the restroom while I was there. And no food or beverage service because people would congregate in line. It would have to be a large venue with capacity capped at a much lower number than usual, or a small neighborhood concert in the park.”
“Why not just drink a nice hot cup of Plague Espresso?”
Dating showed one of the largest gaps between men and women, with 38 percent of men and 24 percent of women willing to get back to it.
“I’m extremely single, and this experience has made me aware of how much I want a romantic relationship. Realistically, that’s going to require some physical contact at some point.”
“I think for dates, it is just an acceptable risk for me. I cannot stay inside for forever, and I will let my date decide the level of contact they are comfortable with, but a walk outdoors seems pretty safe to me.”
—Brian, North Carolina
“I feel like dating is so awkward normally. A date right now is just going to be even more awkward. People get so weird in general when you tell them deal breakers early on. I imagine trying to have a convo about social distancing/when you can get close would just bring out everyone’s inner weirdo. I’m busy enough dealing with my own inner weirdo.”
“To go on a date, I’d need to know more details about the other person’s stance on mitigation/distancing. In some ways it feels like any in-person meetup logistics conversation will sound a bit like a safer sex conversation—what are your risk factors, what are your exposure risks, what are your mitigation practices, do our practices line up?”
Many respondents expressed concerns about crowds and only wanted to venture to places close to home. But visiting a beach or national park was one of the more acceptable activities.
“The beach is a big part of our lives. I think we could easily maintain proper social distancing while sitting under an umbrella, tossing a football, and boogie boarding. We have always tended to go to the beach before noon or after 5 p.m. anyway, just to avoid crowds and the hottest part of the day, so we’d continue to do that. It would be a huge boost to our happiness and our ability to sustain social distancing for many more weeks/months.”
“Despite consistent warnings from the governor, our open space and state park trailheads have been packed. We’ve been avoiding those and will continue to do so, but we might consider doing some backcountry camping in the coming months. Definitely no campgrounds or anywhere with shared facilities.”
“I think this may be an urban/rural divide question. We live out in the sticks right near a national park, and have been going there regularly throughout lock-in. My wife and I rarely see a soul, and when we do, it’s ‘howdy!’ and wave from a distance. If we still lived in L.A.? Definitely would not be going to Venice Beach or Griffith Park, nor to our own park now if there were a bunch of people/cars. Ultimately, it’s situational.”
“Renting a vacation house just seems unethical right now. We don’t want to unwittingly spread the virus to rural communities just because it would be nice to get away. And going to a beach or national park also seems unnecessary. We’ll be able to do those things again but why expose others, and ourselves, to risk for something so optional?”
“For a rental vacation house, I’m fairly confident in my cleaning skills so would come prepared to clean all surfaces and bring my own linens. I might also rent Saturday but not show up until Sunday to give anything in the air time to settle. And it would have to be in driving distance and not require a stop on the way.”
—Amy, North Carolina
“What’s the point of flying anywhere or staying in a vacation house, other than to meet new and interesting people to breathe on and get breathed on by in return? And isn’t going on vacation an insult to all the people who’ve been sent on involuntary vacation over the past two months?”
“The only reason I say I don’t know rather than no is because I already have a vacation booked for July. They make it so hard to cancel!”
“I had to cancel my honeymoon because of the pandemic, and as much as I am itching to get on a trans-Atlantic flight and take a sorely needed vacation, it’s definitely not the first thing I’m doing. I want to be clear of a second wave before I get on a flight.”
—Ben, New York
“My father has been locked down in a nursing home and can no longer work a phone. So, I have to go there and see him in person to assess how he is doing. I could be risking the lives of the entire nursing home and all the workers just because I need to see my ailing father. This is a horrible Sophie’s choice, and I really should not do it, but I know I will.”
“I am terrified to visit my 86-year-old grandmother. We just lost my grandfather in December of 2019. Now not only can we not visit her, but she is also alone for the first time in 60 years. It breaks my heart that she is alone and sad. The idea of losing Gram is terrifying, so I am staying away.”
“My mother is 91 (and a half!) years old and lives in a different state. We had to cancel our trip to see her in April. The last thing I want to do is go visit her and carry the virus to her, in which case she would likely die from it. … But let’s face it, at her age every day is a gift, and I don’t want to put off visiting her for so long that she dies in the next year while I wait for a vaccine, meaning I would never see her alive again.”
Shaking hands elicited one of the most decisive responses. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said no to handshaking, and many called the tradition “outdated” and “gross” and hoped the pandemic would hasten its demise. Hugging was the single largest divide among age groups: 65 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds said they would hug friends, compared with 36 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds, 27 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds, and 16 percent of 65- to 74-year-olds. About one-fifth of respondents said they were unsure about hugging a friend.
“I think I will really miss shaking hands, but it’s not always necessary and just seems like both an unnecessary risk and an easy way to protect someone else.”
“Shaking hands, screw it, dumb tradition. Just hit ‘em with the curtsy before they can offer and see what they do. Or, if you’re truly second level, give them the extended-hand ‘psyche’ and hair brush-back. Frankly, that should be the new normal.”
“I’m unsure about shaking hands, as I had a [tradesman] come over who held out his hand, and I shook it before I thought about it. Habit? I felt rude not doing it, though I would have preferred not to.”
“I’m fine with never shaking hands again, but damn, I don’t think I can live without hugs.”
“I desperately need a hug. I’m grieving the loss of my husband and dealing with my mom’s severe illness. I’m willing to risk a hug with a close friend if they are willing to risk it with me.”
“I want so very much to hug and kiss my 90-year-old mom, but I would never forgive myself if she became sick.”
“Hug a friend—I don’t care if it’s risky. I know it is. But I love my friends, and I miss them, and want to hug them.”
Additional reporting by Chloe Hadavas. Charts by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.