Public Preferences for Social Distancing Policy Measures to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19 in Missouri

Ingrid Eshun-Wilson, Aaloke Mody, Virginia McKay, Matifadza Hlatshwayo, Cory Bradley, Vetta Thompson, David V. Glidden, Elvin H. Geng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Importance: Policies to promote social distancing can minimize COVID-19 transmission but come with substantial social and economic costs. Quantifying relative preferences among the public for such practices can inform locally relevant policy prioritization and optimize uptake. Objective: To evaluate relative utilities (ie, preferences) for COVID-19 pandemic social distancing strategies against the hypothetical risk of acquiring COVID-19 and anticipated income loss. Design, Setting, and Participants: This survey study recruited individuals living in the Missouri area from May to June 2020 via randomly distributed unincentivized social media advertisements and local recruitment platforms for members of minority racial and ethnic groups. Participants answered 6 questions that asked them to choose between 2 hypothetical counties where business closures, social distancing policy duration, COVID-19 infection risk, and income loss varied. Main Outcomes and Measures: Reweighted population-level relative preferences (utilities) for social distancing policies, subgroups, and latent classes. Results: The survey had a 3% response rate (3045 of 90320). Of the 2428 respondents who completed the survey, 1669 (75%) were 35 years and older, 1536 (69%) were women, and 1973 (89%) were White. After reweighting to match Missouri population demographic characteristics, the strongest preference was for the prohibition of large gatherings (mean preference, -1.43; 95% CI, -1.67 to -1.18), with relative indifference to the closure of social and lifestyle venues (mean preference, 0.05; 95% CI, -0.08 to 0.17). There were weak preferences to keep outdoor venues (mean preference, 0.50; 95% CI, 0.39 to 0.61) and schools (mean preference, 0.18; 95% CI, 0.05 to 0.30) open. Latent class analysis revealed 4 distinct preference phenotypes in the population: risk averse (48.9%), conflicted (22.5%), prosocial (14.9%), and back to normal (13.7%), with men twice as likely as women to belong to the back to normal group than the risk averse group (relative risk ratio, 2.19; 95% CI, 1.54 to 3.12). Conclusions And relevance: In this survey study using a discrete choice experiment, public health policies that prohibited large gatherings, as well as those that closed social and lifestyle venues, appeared to be acceptable to the public. During policy implementation, these activities should be prioritized for first-phase closures. These findings suggest that policy messages that address preference heterogeneity (eg, focusing on specific preference subgroups or targeting men) could improve adherence to social distancing measures for COVID-19 and future pandemics.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2116113
JournalJAMA Network Open
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 8 2021


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