Republicans have downplayed the importance of masking and social distancing throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and a new study shows that message has filtered down to the party’s youngest voting members.
Nearly one out of every four young adults from the Los Angeles region who identify as Republicans said they do not regularly follow social distancing guidelines, according to a report published online Dec. 14 in JAMA Internal Medicine.
“The Republican participants were less frequently following social distancing at about a four to five times greater odds” than Democrats or Independents, said lead researcher Adam Leventhal. He’s a professor and psychologist with the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, in Los Angeles.
These young Republicans were also more likely than Democrats or Independents to engage in activities that raise their risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, like hitting bars and clubs or attending a big party, he noted.
The fact that these young adults hail from California shows the power of Republican messaging when it comes to social distancing, Leventhal said.
“This is a blue county in a blue state. Because of that, we didn’t expect to see such big differences between Republicans and the other parties,” Leventhal said. “The fact that we still see such large differences does tell us that it likely is due to political party affiliation, and not other regional or cultural factors.”
These results mirror those of another new study that found that political partisanship plays a much stronger role in people’s social distancing decisions than how heavily COVID-19 has been spreading in their community.
That research, published Dec. 11 in the journal Science Advances, concluded that partisanship is roughly 27 times more important than local COVID-19 prevalence for explaining people’s individual social distancing choices.
Republicans were nearly 28% more likely to eschew social distancing guidelines than Independents, while Democrats were 13% less likely, the Science Advances study found.
Republican dismissals of the need for masking and social distancing come from the very top, and carry a powerful impact, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, in Baltimore.
“I suspect what lies behind this phenomenon is that President Trump, being the de-facto head of the Republican Party, has been a deliberate source of lies and misinformation regarding COVID-19,” Adalja said. “Many people who consider themselves Republicans support him and accept his evasions and arbitrary pronouncements uncritically.”
For the JAMA study, Leventhal and his colleagues surveyed nearly 2,200 young adults who they’ve been tracking since 2013, when the kids were recruited as ninth graders in Los Angeles to take part in a long-term study. They now are around 21, and were surveyed during the summer.
About 24% of the young adults who identified as Republicans said they didn’t follow social distancing practices regularly, compared with 5% of Democrats and nearly 7% of Independents.
Additionally, the self-identified Republicans were more likely to take part in activities that increase their risk of COVID-19 infection.
More Republicans — 57% — said they’d visited a restaurant, bar or club than Democrats — 29% — or Independents — 38% — the survey found.
Republicans also were more likely to host — 19% — or attend — 47% — a party with more than 10 people, compared with either Democrats — 11% and 30%, respectively — or Independents — 9% and 29%, respectively.
“This suggests that this population of young adults are important to consider, because they do have high rates of coronavirus infection and may be contributing to the spread of the coronavirus due to not following physical distancing guidelines,” Leventhal said.
Future messaging on infection prevention measures needs to take into account these differences, he concluded.
“We hope that public health professionals and political officials take notice and understand that people with different political affiliations and ideologies may respond differently to public health messages about controlling the coronavirus,” Leventhal said. “They should not assume that the same message will resonate with all members of the population equally.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on social distancing and COVID-19.
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