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‘An existential crisis’: Poll finds widespread fear of coronavirus in L.A.

Alexander Martinez stands alone on the 1st Street Bridge as the sun sets behind a deserted downtown Los Angeles on Monday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

A new poll of Angelenos reflects the region’s unnerving descent into sudden urban desolation as the coronavirus pandemic spreads.

Overwhelming numbers of Los Angeles County residents express deep anxiety about contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and are worried about the financial costs of staying at home, according to the poll by researchers at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs that was released Wednesday.

Overall, 78% of county residents surveyed told researchers they were “very” or “somewhat” concerned that they or a family member might catch the virus, which has infected more than 6,000 in the county and slowed to a crawl economic activity in a region that is home to 10 million people.

Even more, 83%, say they fear the economic impact from those closures, which are expected to continue for weeks.

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“People view this as an existential crisis,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a retired L.A. County supervisor and onetime L.A. City Councilman who oversaw the poll. “They wouldn’t be adhering to this protocol of staying cooped up in their homes if they didn’t think there was a good reason for it.”

The survey also found that county residents have significantly more confidence in the response of local government to the crisis than the federal government.

The results were largely consistent across all demographic groups. “It’s overwhelming,” Yaroslavsky said.

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The poll of 1,500 residents is part of the school’s annual quality of life survey, which this year included four questions about the coronavirus. The results appear consistent with what’s evident across the county, where residents have largely heeded warnings to stay home and in the city of L.A. to begin wearing protective masks if they must venture out to buy groceries or visit the doctor.

In an era of fragmented media consumption, the virus has seized the attention of most, and it’s therefore not surprising that Angelenos are worried about a highly contagious virus that has killed hundreds of their fellow residents, said Kevin Wallsten, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach.

“My guess is you probably have close to universal interest in the news story itself,” he said. “It’s a story like no other. It’s altered the physical landscape of a place like L.A.”

There’s evidence that the concern among L.A. County residents runs higher than in other parts of the country.

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A recent CNN poll, for example, found that 46% of Americans though it was “very” or “somewhat” likely that they might contract the virus, a slightly different take on the question asked by the UCLA poll.

When assessing government response, the UCLA poll found 61% expressing confidence in local public health and government officials, versus only 39% for the federal government.

Wallsten, the political science professor, said public attitudes about the crisis response might also reflect the ideological bent of the county, where President Trump received only 22% of the vote in 2016. It’s also possible, he said, that people generally favor local institutions over more abstract and distant ones.

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“My guess is if you were to ask about any issue you’d get roughly the same distribution right now,” he said. “Trump has become the face of the federal government’s response, with these daily press conferences. That’s only enhancing this effect.”

Feelings about the handling of the crisis — and, more broadly, the concern about the virus — were consistent across the county’s five supervisorial districts, which have varying mean income levels, demographics and ideologies, even for deeply Democratic L.A.

To Yaroslavsky, a veteran of four decades of local politics, the results are remarkable.

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“The verdict is in: They have more confidence in their local officials than they do in Washington, and they’re worried,” he said. “This level of anxiety translates into fear, and I think that’s why people are following the directives, quite religiously.”

The poll also showed that older women were more likely to be worried than other demographic groups, with about 62% of those older than age 50 saying they were “very” concerned about contracting the virus, Yaroslavsky said.


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