As discussions on reopening take place on a state-level, residents show greater and more substantial engagement on this issue when their mayor posts or refers to this issue
Sentiment on reopening reflects wariness and concern about opening too soon and relaxing social distancing regulations and the possible toll on the public’s health
Specific areas of confusion around new and modified guidelines are: operation of various businesses, schools and parks
Given concerns as well as specific and practical questions about the process of easing restrictions and the new guidelines, creating city platforms for engagement with residents is critical
As Stay at Home orders are extended in many cities and counties across the country, some states are beginning to discuss and implement the process of reopening the economy and easing restrictions. In Texas, Governor Abbott was the first governor to begin discussions about reopening the state’s economy, on April 17, followed by Georgia's Governor Kemp, who started easing restrictions on April 24. Other states are following.
The issue of reopening is sensitive and contentious, with residents in most Zencity partner communities debating the prospect of reopening. This discussion is happening in states where the process of reopening has begun and where it has not yet been raised by officials.
Zencity analyzed 533,981 interactions in 19 cities in Texas and Georgia over the period of April 12-25. Texas and Georgia—as states where the discourse about reopening is the most advanced and where reopening is actually being implemented—have a lot to teach about how this conversation plays out in terms of the main concerns and areas of confusion.
It is clear that even as these discussions are happening on a state-level, residents are turning to their city leadership to understand what is happening and what they are meant to do. As your community begins to ease restrictions and reopen, whether now or in the future, here is what you need to know.
Mayors play a vital role in the reopening conversation
Overall, the discourse on reopening in Texas and Georgia constituted a small share of the overall discourse on COVID-19 during this time period (6%).
With the decisions currently being made on a state-wide basis, it is still unclear for many residents if and how they will be adopted and implemented on a county and city basis, meaning the discussion on reopening is more theoretical. This explains the low discourse volume.
However, in cities where mayors spoke out about the governor’s orders, the issue accounted for a higher share of the discourse, and gained traction following these mayors posts on this issue. In these cities, discourse on reopening reached about 14% of COVID-19-related discourse, compared to only 3% in cities where the mayors did not post about reopening.
In conclusion, in cities where mayors spoke out about the new guidelines or explained them to residents, engagement went up considerably. Furthermore, this engagement was substantial and integral to the success of the reopening process, as it consisted of specific concerns raised by residents about reopening and concrete questions about various elements of the new guidelines - conversations that usually can’t happen as effectively on a state-level.
It is incumbent upon the city leadership to make state-level discussion accessible to residents, who look to the city for this information rather than their state capital, and to create city platforms to voice concerns about reopening and ask questions about the new guidelines.
Reopening generates higher negative sentiment than positive
In both Texas and Georgia, of those who had a clear position either in favor or against reopening, there was a preference for not reopening at this time (higher negative sentiment reflecting opposition to the decision to reopen and ease restrictions).
Negative sentiment reflects a belief that it is too soon to reopen or that the decision is driven by political motives or putting the economy above saving lives and concern that COVID-19 cases and deaths will surge as a result. Many commenters expressed anger about this decision coming at a stage where numbers are still rising, especially given the absence of wide scale testing.
Positive sentiment expresses support for starting to reopen and rolling back restrictions, mostly motivated by worry about unemployment and livelihoods, the belief that the economic toll would be worse than the public health impact or principled opposition to the limitations.
Neutral sentiment included likes and shares, indicating either support or lack of strong objection, and in terms of shares, a sense of urgency to notify others. In addition, commenters noted that the reopening was not mandatory and was simply allowing individuals and businesses to choose to reopen and go out, while others are free to stay home if they are feeling unsafe and people advocating for personal responsibility in limiting going out even if businesses reopen and maintaining social distancing and caution irrespective of official decisions.
Residents express confusion about specific aspects of reopening
In both Texas and Georgia, there were several issues that attracted more attention from residents in terms of reopening guidelines: business and retail, schools, and parks. In the following section, we will break down these areas of conclusions to specific concerns and opinions that were evident in the discourse.
Business and retail
People struggled to understand exactly how the easement of restrictions was different than before and what has changed. Another issue of concern was the ability of businesses to open while still complying with social distancing regulations. This was especially pertinent with respect to beauty salons and barbershops.
The main issue that came up with respect to schools was whether the decision to keep schools closed for the duration of the school year means that remote learning will also stop.
The central issues regarding parks were the requirement to wear masks (in Texas), with people expressing confusion and at times frustration at the fact that while masks are required in parks, they are not mandatory in grocery stores. An additional issue (in Texas) was the limit of 5 per group, with people asking about families that consist of more than 5 members.
What about the existing regulations?
We especially note one point of misunderstanding that arose anecdotally in cities, but is nonetheless critical: some residents expressed confusion about whether new guidelines revoke current guidelines, namely, if current shelter-in-place guidelines are void or still valid, just in a modified form. Releasing clarifications about this and the above mentioned issues could ease resident’s concerns about the reopening and ensure that compliance is maintained despite the easements.
To conclude, cities can expect to see retail stores, schools and parks to be specific areas of confusion, in need of clarifications. These requests for clarifications on specific sections of the new executive order also suggest a strong interest to understand and adequately comply with the new guidelines. As more and more states will move toward reopening, residents will inevitably turn to their city leadership for answers to these specific questions. To prevent confusion and ensure a smooth transition into more lax regulations, it is useful to plan communications around these issues in advance, highlighting specific changes to the current policy and clear messaging about the above-mentioned topics.
Overall, a majority of residents in both Texas and Georgia display a preference to not reopen at this time, caused by trepidation about the potential effect on the public’s health and the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 cases as a result.
The new guidelines or changes to existing regulations reveal certain areas in which residents express confusion, specifically how businesses are meant to operate now and, to a lesser extent, remote learning now that the school year has been cancelled as well as the restrictions in parks. Planning a communication strategy that addresses these confusion areas in advance could go a long way in reducing anxiety and misinformation throughout the process of reopening.
City platforms, and especially the mayor's social media channels, are crucial as cities can expect new guidelines or rolling back restrictions to stir some confusion and anxiety (especially given that concerns about reopening are more prevalent than support). In addition, given that the reopening discussions are happening on a state-level, communicating them on city channels is critical to ensure understanding, assuage concerns and increase investment from residents in implementing reopening responsibly.
If you’d like to learn more about how your city is discussing reopening, visit your Zencity Projects Dashboard and click on the project ‘Coronavirus: Reopening’.