Floridians less black and white on COVID mandates than DeSantis is, poll finds

Chris Persaud
Palm Beach Post

Most Floridians, including many Republicans, hold wobbly opinions on COVID-19 masking and vaccination requirements, a recent poll suggests.

While the GOP-controlled state government has banned or defanged such measures to fight the spread of the disease, the majority of respondents in a St. Leo University survey conducted last month said they personally support mask and vaccine “mandates.” Yet they also agreed it’s time to “move on” from the pandemic, indicating less of a hardline on these issues than their elected leaders.

The private Catholic university asked a randomly selected group of 500 Florida adults whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: “It is time to move on and live with COVID — no more mask or vaccine mandates.” About 56% of the online poll’s respondents agreed.

But when asked to “please indicate which of the following best describes your own views on” mask or vaccine “mandates,” 62% said they support masking requirements, while 59% backed such a rule for vaccinations.

That’s because almost half of those who said they agreed with dropping requirements and moving on also said they personally support them.

“The consistency of the public sometimes leaves a little bit to be desired,” St. Leo University polling director Frank Orlando said. “On a question asking if we should ‘move on’ vs. should we keep a mask mandate, even the fact that these questions are written differently elicit different responses.” 

Unlike other polling conducted on COVID-19 restrictions, this one appears to reveal public opinion is not black and white — “support” or “oppose,” without room for nuance.

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'People can have opinions that vary,' pollster says 

“People can have opinions that vary and may not be ideologically consistent,” University of North Florida polling director Michael Binder said. “It's not entirely contradictory to say, ‘Yeah it's time to move on and time to get rid of these mandates.’ But you can be supportive of them up to this point.”

Someone with a nuanced view on these requirements, Binder added, might say, “Look, vaccines work. Masks work. … But at this point, it's over. The war has been fought and it's gonna continue on like the flu from now on. … So I’m in support of mandates, but I think it's time to move forward.”

St. Leo University conducted its survey from Feb. 28 to March 12, as the biggest wave of coronavirus infections, driven by the omicron variant, receded. The college published its coronavirus-related findings April 7 and shared its raw data with The Palm Beach Post to analyze.

As COVID surged in Florida, the governor resisted mask mandates.

Infections statewide have risen again since mid-March, fueled by the BA.2 subvariant of omicron. But COVID hospitalizations remain near pandemic lows, in line with the expectations of medical experts, who say most people are vaccinated or have been infected by the main omicron strain, so they have immunity. 

Most poll respondents, including many self-identified Republicans, expressed support for anti-COVID measures that Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration banned or fought last year.

About 57% of survey takers said they “support ‘passports’ (proof of vaccinations) in my community to get into restaurants, concerts, or sporting events.” That includes 79% of Democrats, 40% of Republicans and 54% of respondents identifying with neither party.

DeSantis, a Republican, signed legislation in May allowing the state to investigate and fine businesses accused of requiring visitors to present proof of immunization. It is impossible to know whether poll respondents knew this. St. Leo University did not inform respondents about it. Most states allow businesses to verify customers’ vaccination status.

Majority back requiring teachers to be vaccinated

About 63% of survey takers said they support “mandating that teachers are vaccinated.” That includes 86% of Democrats, 47% of Republicans and 58% of independents.

But DeSantis signed legislation in November criminalizing that requirement for schools, businesses and government agencies. The state can secretly investigate organizations accused of requiring employees have their shots and slap them with fines of $10,000 to $50,000 per worker. State officials hit Leon County, home to Tallahassee, with a $3.5 million fine in October.

And 65% of poll respondents agreed that vaccine mandates should apply to health-care workers. That includes 89% of Democrats and 60% of independents. Republicans split 48% in favor, 47% against.

Republican state Attorney General Ashley Moody sued the federal government last year after President Joe Biden announced vaccine requirements for health workers. The state dropped its case in January after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Biden administration.

Representatives for the governor’s office did not respond Wednesday to questions about DeSantis’ position on bringing state coronavirus policy in line with residents’ opinions.

Most COVID hospitalizations and deaths have occurred among the unvaccinated, according to data that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has collected from Florida and other states. Doctors and scientists have urged people for more than a year to get vaccinated, but about one in four Floridian adults ages 18 and older remain unvaccinated, the CDC reports.

The St. Leo University poll also showed a big gap between Republicans and everyone else when it comes to trusting scientists regarding the coronavirus.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, left watches Jessica Brown, 77, receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sherry Phillips in this 2020 photo at the King's Point clubhouse in Delray Beach.

A partisan political gap on trusting science, health officials

Just 56% of Republicans said they agreed with the statement, “I tend to trust science and health officials when it comes to COVID information,” compared with 87% of Democrats and 73% of independents.

Other organizations’ polls have consistently documented this partisan gap. In the St. Leo University survey, the gulf of trust between Republicans and everyone else was bigger than it was among age groups, sexes, races or education levels.

The margin of error in the St. Leo University poll was 4.5 percentage points. 

The university contracts with a company that finds potential respondents. Orlando, the college’s polling director, would not name the company, he said, because he did not want people to look it up to try to put themselves in its pool of potential respondents, which could bias surveys. Pollsters prefer random samples.

Professional pollsters could reveal the squishiness of public opinion by asking respondents how they would feel if their preferred policies were not adopted, former Gallup vice president David W. Moore wrote in his 2008 book "The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls." 

When polling firm Gallup asked Americans in July 2007 how they felt about closing the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba, 53% answered “oppose,” 33% “support.” 

Regardless of what they answered, in a follow-up question asking if they would feel “upset” if the government did the opposite of what they wanted, 52% said no.

Binder and Orlando indicated willingness to add such follow-up questions to their surveys. 

“A lot of peoples' opinions are very shallow … until the news channels put forth arguments on why you should care about it,” Binder said.

"I think that that's a great way to get at the salience (or ambivalence) of the idea for respondents," Orlando wrote in an email.

Chris Persaud is The Palm Beach Post's data reporter. Email him at cpersaud@pbpost.com.