Poll shows sharp divide in attitudes depending on vaccination status

Those who have shunned immunizations are least worried about eating in restaurants and other activities

WITH COVID CASES surging in Massachusetts and tests hard to come by, deciding what feels safe to do can be a moving target. But for one group at least, the decision is a lot easier. Those who are unvaccinated largely feel safe eating in restaurants, attending public places and events, and are hesitant to introduce more restrictions. Meanwhile, those who have been vaccinated or boosted are cautious to partake in many public activities and are calling for more strident stances on COVID-related mandates.

That’s according to the latest poll from the MassINC Polling Group, which surveyed 1,026 registered voters in Massachusetts in late December. The results highlight the irony that those who are the least protected against the virus are the least concerned, while those who have taken more precautions by getting vaccinated continue to be more cautious. 

Even in a state with one of the highest vaccination rates, the battle against COVID-19 is as much one of public attitudes as it is of public health infrastructure.

Overall, the public is pessimistic. Only 26 percent of voters statewide say the situation around the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts has gotten “better” compared to this time last year. This is despite the administration of millions of vaccine doses, the reopening of schools and many workplaces, and at least a few months last year that approached normalcy. Instead, two-thirds of voters (66 percent) say the situation has either gotten worse or stayed about the same. This is the only place in the survey where vaccination status did not have an impact: The unvaccinated and vaccinated alike are discouraged by the state’s progress.

But that’s where the similarities end. Across a range of public activities, voters who are not vaccinated are more likely to say they feel safe compared with those who are vaccinated, and especially those who are boosted.

For example, 71 percent of unvaccinated voters say they feel safe dining indoors at a restaurant, including 42 percent who feel “very safe.” Meanwhile, only 62 percent of vaccinated voters and 55 percent of boosted voters feel safe dining indoors. Only 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of those vaccinated or boosted voters would feel “very safe.” This pattern holds across going to movies, concerts, theater performances, and indoor sporting events, along with riding public transportation.

With a vaccine mandate in place, voters would feel somewhat more comfortable resuming public activities, but the shifts are not dramatic. For example, 69 percent of voters would feel “very” or “somewhat” safe dining indoors at a restaurant with a vaccine mandate in place, up from 59 percent without one. But the proportion of those who would feel “very safe” remains unchanged at 23 percent. 

The biggest shifts are among the vaccinated and boosted, but only around the edges. For instance, half of voters who are boosted would feel safe going to a movie, concert, or theater under a vaccine mandate compared with 36 percent who would feel safe without a mandate in place. While that represents – pardon the pun – a boost overall, the proportion who would feel “very safe” only shifts upwards 4 points, from 9 percent to 13 percent. 

This tepidity may reflect anxiety over breakthrough cases that have become more common with the Omicron variant. It also poses a central conundrum of the pandemic. If those who are not vaccinated feel more free to partake in activities, the virus can spread more easily. On the other hand, frustration may be growing among the vaccinated who have taken protections but still deem normal activities too risky. 

Still, voters have proven over the past two years that their behavior can change with the ebbs and flows of the pandemic. The outlook could look much different after the Omicron wave, and voters want clear action to move the state forward. 

That starts with widespread testing – 84 percent of voters support providing COVID rapid tests to households free of charge, including 60 percent who “strongly support” the measure. This is the only item with support from a majority of the unvaccinated (71 percent). Support from the vaccinated (84 percent) and boosted (91 percent) is even higher.

Nearly two-thirds of voters overall (65 percent) also support reinstating a statewide indoor mask mandate. Gov. Baker has given no indication that he plans to do so, instead leaving it up to cities and towns. As with all the remaining measures queried, the unvaccinated are far less supportive of an indoor mask mandate (41 percent vs. 65 percent of vaccinated and 75 percent of boosted voters). 

Private businesses often get caught in the crosshairs trying to balance staff protection with customer prerogatives. But this survey suggests voters would prefer businesses to err on the side of caution. They support both proof of vaccination from employees working on-site (65 percent) and from customers (56 percent). In Boston, city employees are already required to be vaccinated and a vaccine mandate for customer-facing businesses will take effect January 15. Voters in Boston and the inner suburbs are open to the changes. A majority already support proof of vaccination for employees (73 percent) and for customers at stores and restaurants (65 percent). Outside of Greater Boston, there is majority support for employee proof of vaccination across the state. But support for customer proof of vaccination dips in Western and Central Massachusetts (50 percent) along with the Southeast region of the state (44 percent).

Massachusetts voters also support a proof of vaccination requirement for train or air travel (67 percent), although these are regulated by federal agencies. Still, as policymakers nationwide look for ways to convince vaccine holdouts to get the jab, travel mandates may be one lever that has yet to be pulled. 

Meet the Author

Maeve Duggan

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
Two years into the pandemic, Massachusetts voters are discouraged. Under the weight of a new variant and renewed disruptions to daily life, progress can feel fleeting. Divergent attitudes between those who are and are not vaccinated complicate the path forward. But majority support across the state for new protective measures should give policymakers a road map. At least until the next twist in this wily and persistent pandemic.

Maeve Duggan is research director at the MassINC Polling Group.