Poll shows residents hunkering down at home

Tracking survey, smartphone data show message is getting through

MONDAY’S “STAY-AT-HOME” advisory from Gov. Charlie Baker represents the most restrictive recommendation yet from the state to battle the growing coronavirus threat. Non-essential businesses have been ordered to close, and, perhaps the taller order, residents are being asked to stay at home. Three new datasets suggest residents are heeding this advice.

The MassINC Polling Group, in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, has been polling Massachusetts residents on an ongoing basis about their experiences with the outbreak. In the latest wave, fielded between March 20 and March 23, 90 percent of Massachusetts residents say coronavirus poses a serious threat to people across the state, and another 70 percent think the crisis is getting “more serious.” In response to the outbreak, 60 percent of residents say they are “not seeing or visiting anyone,” up from 46 percent earlier last week. Further, the proportion of residents who say they are “going to stores only if it is essential” has ticked upward from 66 percent in the first wave of the survey (March 16-19) to 74 percent in the second.

March 24, 2020Smartphone data back up the trends on the ground. Two different companies, Unacast and Descartes Labs, have measured how people have changed their behavior since the coronavirus outbreak. They compare the average distance travelled on a typical day versus recent days when people have been advised to limit their socializing, shopping, and exposure. 

Travel in Massachusetts has dropped precipitously according to smartphone data, further evidence that residents here are taking the threat seriously. According to Unacast, Massachusetts has reduced its average distance travelled by 47 percent. This earns the state an “A,” awarded to any state that reduces its distance travelled by 40 percent or more. The data from Descartes Labs looks even better for Massachusetts. They found the state reduced travel distances by  60 percent or more.

While the state as a whole is doing well, some counties have seen particularly high dropoffs. Unacast and Descartes Labs present their county level data differently, but both show dramatic reductions in Suffolk, Norfolk, and Middlesex counties. This could be related to the relative urbanity of these counties, where “essentials” like grocery stores are often a short trip from home. In more rural areas of the state, residents who are abiding by recommendations may still need to travel farther distances to collect necessities. 

A related trend is featured in the survey data — those who live in rural or suburban areas are more likely than urbanites to say coronavirus has not changed how they get around their area (81 percent and 70 percent vs. 59 percent, respectively). Suburban- and rural-dwellers may still be reliant on their cars as they travel farther distances to get to grocery stores, pharmacies, or health care centers. Meanwhile, urbanites may be avoiding public transportation or ride-sharing, modes that other MPG polling has repeatedly shown is more popular in urban areas.  

Meet the Author

Maeve Duggan

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
In the coming days or weeks, residents may face even more restrictive orders to shelter-in-place. Some residents may welcome that news — 27 percent say the response to coronavirus in their area has not gone far enough, up from 23 percent last week. But for the time being, it is some encouragement that many here in Massachusetts are already doing their small part, one less trip outside at a time.

Maeve Duggan is research director at the MassINC Polling Group.