Survey: NC Becoming More Polarized Over Pandemic Threat

Fewer people are practicing social distancing, but most still believe they are responding appropriately

map of North Carolina with COVID notation

North Carolinians are split over the risks posed by the coronavirus, a Duke survey finds. 

The statewide social distancing survey, now in its sixth week, also found fewer people are practicing social distancing across the state, but that most still believe they are responding appropriately.

The survey was designed by the Duke University COVID-19 Digital Lab, a joint project of Duke Forge and Duke’s Social Science Research Institute. It is being repeated weekly to provide insight on how people in North Carolina are changing their behavior over time in response to the outbreak.

The latest survey was conducted by phone May 9-11. It asked 1,684 North Carolinians about their social distancing behavior and attitudes during that time.

Forty-three percent of survey respondents said they felt most North Carolinians were responding appropriately, down significantly from the range of 52-57 percent seen in the survey’s first four weeks.

"We see increased polarization around how respondents view the risks of the coronavirus. This is a result of increases in both the share of respondents who think most North Carolinians are underestimating the risk, and the share of respondents who think most North Carolinians are overreacting,” said Nick Eubanks, an assistant research professor at SSRI who worked on the survey.

The share of respondents who think most North Carolinians are underestimating the risk is up nine points in the last two weeks to 42 percent, while those who think most are overreacting has increased from 8 percent in March to 15 percent in the latest survey.

Meanwhile, the survey found significant changes in social distancing behavior:

  • The number of people reporting no face-to-face interactions with people outside their household has fallen by 10 percentage points to 23 percent.
  • Twenty-eight percent of people reported at least one face-to-face interaction with someone outside their house in which they were unable to stay 6 feet from the other person, up by six points.
  •  The number of people who reported being in a group of 20 or more people in the last week has continued to rise slowly, up to 26 percent.

Despite these changes, the share of respondents who say they are practicing social distancing remains stable at about 95 percent, and the number of people reporting large changes in their routines has stayed at about 60 percent.

“This shows that the core finding of this survey still holds: Social distancing means very different things to different people,” Eubank said. “However, it does also suggest most North Carolinians believe that they are continuing to exercise caution even as they change their behavior.”