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Should We Open Up? Our National Survey of Local Government Officials Shows We May Not Have A Choice

 A CivicPulse Special Issue COVID-19 Report

In partnership with RIT Department of Public Policy

Jonathan Chu, Emily Katz, and Nathan Lee 

May 1, 2020

Get the pdf here

Download the data and codebook here



As governors weigh whether to open their states up, one important question remains unanswered: how long will local communities go along with COVID-19 restrictions if we don’t open up? Local policymakers are uniquely positioned to answer this question. Whatever policy decisions are made at higher levels, local officials are the ones who have to persuade or enforce compliance in their own communities. To better understand the realities of community compliance going forward, CivicPulse conducted a nationally representative survey of over 1,000 local policymakers across all 50 states.  

We uncovered a startling truth: the vast majority of local government officials across the country, regardless of the partisanship of their communities, predict that voluntary compliance with COVID-19 restrictions will decline if the situation continues as it is.  

We asked local officials the following question: “In general, if the situation stays the same for another three months, how will people’s compliance with these [COVID-19] guidelines change?” 69% of respondents answered that compliance would worsen. And this perspective was not limited to Republican localities: in Democrat-leaning counties, 65% of local officials predicted compliance would worsen, compared with 70% in Republican-leaning counties (Figure 1). 


Figure 1: In general, if the situation stays the same for another three months, how will people’s compliance with [Covid-19] guidelines change? In counties with a minority Trump voteshare, 11% of respondents expected compliance to improve, 24% thought that it would stay the same, and 65% expected it to worsen. In counties with a majority Trump voteshare, these numbers were similarly 5% (improve), 25% (stay same), and 70% (worsen). 


But what if voluntary compliance begins to slip, as our survey suggests it will? Could local governments maintain high compliance coercively? Unlikely. We asked local policymakers how they have been implementing COVID-19 policies (Figure 2). The dominant mode of implementation has been through encouragement (e.g., signs, announcements), not enforcement (e.g., policing, fines). County public health departments have limited ability to force businesses or individuals to comply with restrictions, and, notably, law enforcements officials have decidedly mixed views about stepping into this role. 

Even in cases where law enforcement officials have stepped in, they simply don’t have the personnel to police their entire communities for all COVID-19 restrictions. For example, when asked what additional resources would improve compliance, one councilmember in Minnesota told us, “Our police force is stretched...They are working overtime. The city budget is taking a big hit.” 


Figure 2: Which, if any, of the following types of actions has your local government taken to increase compliance with these four guidelines? For each of the four measures, a plurality of local officials said they were relying exclusively on encouragement (e.g., signs, announcements) rather than enforcement (e.g. policing, fines). Specifically, this number was 44% of local officials for dine-in services, 59% for large gatherings, 68% for in-person work, and 78% for social distancing. 


Local governments are on the frontline of navigating this pandemic in their own communities. While current community compliance with COVID-19 restrictions remains remarkably high (see Figure A1), local officials’ perspective on future compliance is unequivocal: regardless of partisanship, voluntary compliance will deteriorate over time. Furthermore, if and when this happens, local governments may not have the coercive capacity to stop it. As state and federal policymakers begin answering the question of when to open up, they must work closely with local governments to make sure their policies reflect this reality on the ground. 

To read the appendix, please see the pdf.

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