Social distancing in America: Understanding long-term adherence to COVID-19 mitigation recommendations

Christopher P.Reinders Folmer, Megan A. Brownlee, Adam D. Fine, Emmeke B. Kooistra, Malouke E. Kuiper, Elke H. Olthuis, Anne Leonore de Bruijn, Benjamin Van Rooij

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29 Scopus citations


A crucial question in the governance of infectious disease outbreaks is how to ensure that people continue to adhere to mitigation measures for the longer duration. The present paper examines this question by means of a set of cross-sectional studies conducted in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, in May, June, and July of 2020. Using stratified samples that mimic the demographic characteristics of the U.S. population, it seeks to understand to what extent Americans continued to adhere to social distancing measures in the period after the first lockdown ended. Moreover, it seeks to uncover which variables sustained (or undermined) adherence across this period. For this purpose, we examined a broad range of factors, relating to people's (1) knowledge and understanding of the mitigation measures, (2) perceptions of their costs and benefits, (3) perceptions of legitimacy and procedural justice, (4) personal factors, (5) social environment, and (6) practical circumstances. Our findings reveal that adherence was chiefly shaped by three major factors: Respondents adhered more when they (a) had greater practical capacity to adhere, (b) morally agreed more with the measures, and (c) perceived the virus as a more severe health threat. Adherence was shaped to a lesser extent by impulsivity, knowledge of social distancing measures, opportunities for violating, personal costs, and descriptive social norms. The results also reveal, however, that adherence declined across this period, which was partly explained by changes in people's moral alignment, threat perceptions, knowledge, and perceived social norms. These findings show that adherence originates from a broad range of factors that develop dynamically across time. Practically these insights help to improve pandemic governance, as well as contributing theoretically to the study of compliance and the way that rules come to shape behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0257945
JournalPloS one
Issue number9 September
StatePublished - Sep 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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