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The new COVID normal: Most see a long slog

After an initial period of serious concern, Americans have settled into their new coronavirus-driven reality, according to new surveys.
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WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed America over the past seven weeks, changing everything from work life and school life to travel plans. But in that short time, it's become clear that the virus's impact has changed as well.

After an initial period of serious concern, Americans have settled into their new coronavirus-driven reality, according to surveys from Dynata, the world's largest first-party survey insights company. And they seem to be looking ahead to a long fight.

Consider the most basic question about the virus: Is this as bad as it’s going to get or is the worst still yet to come? Over the last seven weeks, Americans have grown a lot sunnier in their answer to that question.

In the first week of the virus lockdown, in a survey taken March 17 and 18, only seven percent of registered voters said they thought the worst was behind us. By week four, April 6 and 7, the figure had climbed to 11 percent. In week seven, April 27 and 28, close to a third of those surveyed, 29 percent, said they believed the worst is behind the nation.

That’s still far short of a majority, of course, but the increase is noteworthy. It shows a sense of positive momentum among the public.

The numbers also revealed a rise and a fall in the health fears of Americans where the virus is concerned.

In week one, 49 percent of those surveyed said the virus made them feel “very concerned” about the health of their family. By week four, the figure had climbed to 57 percent who said they were “very concerned.” But this week the figure was lower than it was when the pandemic first came to dominate the headlines, with 45 percent saying they were “very concerned.”

That arc of concern appears to show a level of comfort with the virus, or at least a better understanding of it. To be clear, people don’t feel safe. The number of people in the survey who say they feel “a little concerned” has actually risen in the last three weeks. But the numbers mostly appear to be people moving from “very concerned” into the lesser category.

One thing that has become abundantly clear in the last seven weeks is the economic damage wreaked by COVID-19, as businesses temporarily shutter or dial back on service and employees are laid off. However, the data show that as the pandemic goes on, fewer people are feeling concerned about their economic situation.

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, 37 percent of those surveyed said they were “very concerned” about their family’s financial stability. In week four, the number had dropped slightly to 34 percent. And this week, the number had fallen to 27 percent.

Again, many Americans are still concerned about their family’s economic situation, but the “very concerned” number is declining. That drop may be because the first rounds of virus-related layoffs have worked their way through the system and some who worried about their jobs found themselves unaffected — for the time being.

Clearly, as the pandemic goes on, these numbers could change, but for now, Americans seem to be settling into life with the coronavirus.

However, even as the numbers show Americans are becoming used to a COVID-19 world and are more likely to believe the “worst is behind us,” those surveyed are not expecting the virus to leave the scene anytime soon. In fact, as the last seven weeks have gone by, people in the Dynata survey are increasingly seeing the virus as a longer-term problem.

Seven weeks ago, only 25 percent of those surveyed said they believed “the coronavirus pandemic will last” six months or more. In week four, 36 percent said they believed it will last at least that long. This past week, the number hit 56 percent, more than half.

That is a sharp climb and it suggests that Americans may think that they need to settle in for the long-haul. After all, a “new normal” is only required when people believe the world is changing for an extended period of time.

And even when Americans are given an all-clear on the virus, Dynata’s figures suggest the world isn’t going to suddenly click back to the way things used to be. In a separate survey, the company asked Americans when they would resume their normal habits after “the government establishes that it is safe” to do so.

On a broad range of questions, those surveyed were not in a rush to jump back into life as it was. Consider airline travel.

In the survey, more than 60 percent of Americans who normally fly indicated they would wait at least four months to fly again. And 42 percent of normal air travelers said they would wait even longer, seven months or more.

Again, those are numbers from a survey taken this week. The figures could move as conditions change — if a vaccine or treatment is discovered, if work requires them to fly or if there is a sudden spike in cases.

But the larger trend in these results seems to be that, seven weeks in, the COVID-19 pandemic has moved from being an unknown and scary disease to being a lingering medical condition in the eyes of many Americans. It’s difficult to manage. It’s causing pain. And it’s not going away soon.