AUSTIN — A majority of Texans aren’t going to travel again by air until at least August because of the coronavirus outbreak, and more say they’re loathe to resume shopping in person than say they’ll happily traipse back to the malls, a new Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll has found.
As Gov. Greg Abbott allowed restaurants, movie theaters, retail stores and malls to reopen at 25% capacity on Friday, the poll underscored how Texans aren’t of one mind as they assess risks posed by COVID-19.
Instead, they’re closely divided on the advisability of going back to work, the poll found.
By a slight plurality, 44% to 41%, they’re wary of entering a grocery store. The poll, conducted April 18-27, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.85 percentage points.
As more businesses and public spaces in the state reopen, 52% of Texans said they’re comfortable visiting a relative or close friend at their home. Still, by nearly 4-to-1, they do not feel at ease about attending a crowded event.
Even if fans are allowed back into stadiums and arenas, fewer than 1 in 5 Texans said they’re comfortable about attending football, baseball, basketball, hockey, racing and soccer matches. A comparable number were neutral. For each sport, about two-thirds said they were uncomfortable about going back.
Local officials’ work lauded
By better than 4-to-1, Texans give their local leaders such as mayors and county judges high marks for the way they’re handling the coronavirus crisis. By nearly 3-to-1, they approve of the job Gov. Greg Abbott is doing on COVID-19.
President Donald Trump’s performance, though, draws mixed reviews. While 43% said they approve of how he’s handling the coronavirus, 44% disapproved.
“They like their local leaders and they trust their local leaders,” said Kenneth Bryant Jr., a UT-Tyler political scientist who helped design the poll.
When people are asked to assess elected officials’ conduct and if they’re trustworthy during the pandemic, voters are more skeptical, “it’s more polarizing the higher up you go,” he said. “And certainly, once you get to Donald Trump, that’s when you see the numbers plummet in terms of positive reaction to the job performance.”
The poll is the third of five tracking the 2020 election and current events by The News and the UT Tyler Center for Public Opinion. It surveyed 1,183 registered voters, 192 by phone and 995 through online surveys.
If the presidential election were held today, Trump, a Republican, and former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, would tie in Texas, 43%-43%, the poll found. The poll was conducted before growing news coverage of an allegation of sexual assault against Biden in 1993 by one of his former Senate staffers, Tara Reade and before Biden addressed the allegation on Friday.
In the July 14 Democratic runoff for U.S. Senate, decorated former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar of Round Rock leads state Sen. Royce West of Dallas, 32%-16%. For Democratic voters, the poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4.64 percentage points.
In November matchups, both Democratic Senate hopefuls trail incumbent Republican John Cornyn. However, West’s not as far behind. In each hypothetical pairing, 34% are undecided.
Work, eat, shop
As businesses reopen after more than six weeks of pleading by Trump and Abbott for people to stay home to mitigate COVID-19’s spread, the poll found Texas Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say the pandemic’s been blown out of proportion and China is responsible for it.
Democrats, at 84%, call it a major health threat, while only 52% of Republicans do. And 78% of Republicans approve of the way Trump is handling the outbreak, compared with only 13% of Democrats.
But they’re united on some matters. About 9 out of every 10 Texans, of both parties, support greater federal spending on a vaccine for COVID-19. And 69% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans say they trust their local elected leaders to keep their communities healthy and safe during the pandemic.
The poll also found a deep ambivalence among Texans about returning to work.
Asked how comfortable they are, given current conditions, 40% said they are and 40% said they aren’t. Asked how they felt about a return to work if public spaces and businesses reopen soon, there was only slight movement: 42% said they will feel comfortable, while 36% said they still will feel uncomfortable.
The reluctance is despite economic hardship: 60% say someone in their household lost a job or has been temporarily out of work because of the virus, and 52% applied for unemployment benefits or other kinds of support.
Texans are slightly less anxious about getting food from a restaurant than returning to work. Given current conditions, 44% said they were OK with getting restaurant food, 35% said they were not. Asked for their feelings if public spaces and business reopen soon, the plurality saying they’re comfortable grew to 49%-34%.
By 56% to 22%, given current conditions, Texans said they are at ease with curbside pickup outside a retail store.
But shopping in person at stores and malls, as was beginning again on Friday, was a different matter.
Just 35% felt comfortable, 49% did not and 16% were neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.
‘We never really stopped’
On shopping, poll respondents Robert Miller of Cedar Creek near Mabank in Henderson County and Martha Powell of Fort Worth embody the split among Texans about boldness vs. trepidation.
“I do the curbside pick-up,” said Miller, 56, a retired warehouse supervisor. Because his wife has underlying health conditions, he’s being especially careful, Miller said. According to public health experts, older people and those with chronic conditions are the most vulnerable to disease that the coronavirus causes.
“I pay for everything online,” Miller explained. “I show them whatever receipt or whatever paperwork I’ve got, up against the window and they throw it in the trunk and I leave. The contact with people is as minimal as possible.
Powell, though, who’s 59 and director of administration for the World Affairs Council of Dallas, made a joke about how Texans several years ago didn’t let a listeria outbreak that killed three people deter them from eating one of the state’s signature products – Blue Bell ice cream.
“Go back shopping? We never really stopped,” she said. Walmart, Walgreens, even JOANN Fabrics and Crafts was deemed an essential business and kept doors open in recent weeks, Powell noted.
The pandemic has made her feel guilty about shopping on Amazon and not supporting local brick-and-mortar retailers enough, she said. To make amends, Powell plans to visit department stores when they reopen.
“I don’t want to really live in a world where I can’t go to Dillard’s or Macy’s, where they don’t exist,” she said.
Home visits, vacations
Before Friday’s reopening of some businesses and public spaces, just a slight plurality of Texans – 46% — were comfortable going to the homes of relatives and close friends. 38% weren’t. With the prospect of reopenings in sight, the margin for those at ease with such home visits grew to 52%-35%.
Aimee Heath of Garland, though, said she’s been reading the websites of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Texas’ easing doesn’t seem safe, she said. Nor do home visits with loved ones and pals.
“As much as I want to, I still don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “Unless it’s maybe six people? If we’re doing it six to 12 feet apart? Which at that point seems pointless, you know. So until we get lower numbers, I don’t feel comfortable with that.”
Coronavirus has roiled Texans’ summer plans, the poll found.
A whopping 63% said the virus outbreak forced them to change their vacation plans. Of them, just 29% said they’d rebook the same travel plans, while the rest are going by car, not traveling at all or unsure.
Though half of Texans who are between 18 and 24 years old said they’ll use airlines again by July 30, only 24% of those 45-64 and 18% of those 65 or older said they’d do that. Overall, 51% said they’re not flying until after July 30 and 22% said they never fly.
No hoax but China’s ‘responsible’
Texans overwhelmingly (88%-6%) called coronavirus a major health threat. In greater numbers (92%-2%), they said even people not having symptoms need to take precautions to avoid infecting others.
While 36% said the threat posed by the virus has been blown out of proportion, 50% disagreed. By 61%-16%, Texans hold China responsible for the pandemic.
Retired railroad customer service representative Randall Mills of northwest Harris County noted that the novel coronavirus was first detected in China.
“It’s a totalitarian society, so they pretty well keep their news on point, I would say,” he said of Chinese leaders.
“Once they finally woke up to the fact it wasn’t going to go away on its own, they went into action,” he said.
Since the outbreak began, the Chinese have been more compliant with leaders’ orders than people in the U.S., said Mills, 75, who has diabetes and avoids being in public as much as he can.
“That’s one of the hardships of a free society,” he said. “Most people have a mind of their own – and will.”
Susan Miller of Round Rock said she dissents from the prevailing view that China is responsible for the pandemic.
“That is typical Donald Trump hate speech, encouraging people to hate,” said Miller, 58, a stay at home parent.
“It’s not like biological warfare or anything and [the Chinese] were hit just as hard as everybody else,” she said.
“Yeah, they could have done things differently and it might not have ended up so bad,” Miller said. “But you can’t blame them for it. It’s just something that happened. That’s like blaming the Spanish flu on the Spanish.”
The Dallas Morning News/UT Tyler Poll reflects a statewide random sample of 1,183 registered voters between April 18 and April 27. The mixed mode sample includes 192 registered voters who were surveyed by the Center for Opinion Research over the phone and 995 registered voters that were randomly selected from a panel of registered voters that have opted-in to take surveys through a company called Dynata. The online and phone surveys were conducted in English and Spanish.
The data were weighted to be representative of the Texas register voter population. Iterative weighting was used to balance sample demographics to the state population parameters, specifically the estimated gender, age, race/ethnicity, and education of registered voters in the state using an iterated process known as raking.
The sampling error for 1,183 registered voters is +/- 2.85 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence interval. The survey’s design asked additional questions to 447 registered voters who indicated they voted in the Democratic Primary (margin of error of +/- 4.64%).