SALT LAKE CITY — More than half of Utahns now see life returning to normal no later than this fall after more than a year of COVID-19 restrictions, according to results released Tuesday from a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, a much more optimistic outlook than earlier this year.
And once the pandemic is behind them, most Utahns say they're done wearing masks even to prevent the transmission of other diseases. Just 36% said they were very or somewhat likely to wear a mask post-pandemic, while 61% are not very or not at all likely to don a face covering again.
Conducted March 26-31 for the Deseret News and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics of 1,000 registered Utahn voters by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
The poll found 53% believe the pandemic will be behind them by fall — including 23% who say that's going to take just three to six months. More than a quarter, 26%, think it will take a year or more to get back to normal, and 21% are not sure when that will happen.
Compare that to February, when nearly half of Utahns polled said it would take one to several years to see normalcy again, with slightly over a third predicting it could be here by fall. Then, only 12% believed the end to the pandemic could come within three to six months.
That's a big difference "in terms of the optimism of Utahns as to when they think life will get back to normal," said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. He credited the state's increased vaccinations against the virus and decreasing case counts for the upbeat attitude.
Gov. Spencer Cox opened up eligibility for coronavirus vaccines to everyone 16 and older in March, putting Utah ahead of most of the rest of the country in lifting restrictions on who could get the shots. Perry said that's given Utahns more confidence they'll soon be protected against the virus.
"That is something that was not completely clear in February, or at least the timeline was not as clear in February, but it is now," he said, adding "a majority of Utahns are getting vaccinated, and because of that, they're seeing the numbers of COVID cases fall in the state."
Rasmussen called the drop in the number of people who thought they'd have to wait at least a year for a return to normal "really dramatic." He said national polling confirms that Americans believe the worst of the pandemic is already in the rearview mirror.
"People are overwhelmingly shifting their perspective and more and more are saying, 'This is behind us. We're done with this,'" the Florida-based pollster said. "Whether public health officials agree with them or are concerned they're going to do too much too soon, all across the country, we see this growth in optimism."
But Perry pointed out there's also a slight increase in how many Utahns who are unsure what to expect, from 19% in February to 21%, "which is still a big number in terms of this poll."
He said it's important to recognize that there's still uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
"One thing that this last year, last year and a few months, have taught us is that it's hard to count on anything with surety when it comes to this virus, when you still see stories about variants and impacts on various parts of the world," Perry said.
Jay Lalik, a former restaurant server from Murray who's been working as a security guard throughout the pandemic, said he believes it will be more than a year from now before the world looks like it did before the coronavirus struck.
"It just depends on what normal is," Lalik said. "Basically, no masks anywhere. No mask mandates. And no kind of mandatory vaccinations and stuff. I'm not anti-mask, or anti-vax or anything like that. I just do not like a lot of government overreach. It can be used for a lot more than COVID."
Lalik, 40, said he is not sure whether he'll get vaccinated because he's "in as good a shape as a 20-year-old" but worries the shots might end up becoming necessary to travel or to hold certain jobs. If it comes down to that, he said he would get vaccinated rather than attempt to protest.
COVID-19 "is definitely lessening," Lalik said, but "it will be at least a year as far as like people not being worried about COVID. We'll make that the standard, as far as COVID not being an issue," so that people feel comfortable filling restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses without wearing masks.
When it comes to continuing to wear masks once the pandemic is past, Perry said Utahns' lack of interest is very clear.
"The vast majority of Utahns are not planning to make mask wearing a normal part of their life," he said, even if masks, commonplace in other parts of the world long before COVID-19, might be helpful in slowing the spread of other illnesses.
Both flu and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, cases were nearly nonexistent in Utah and the rest of the country this year. While wearing masks and other public health measures are seen as stopping the flu, it's not as certain that's the case with RSV.
Rasmussen noted there is a split between how Republicans and Democrats view wearing masks in the future, with two-thirds of Democrats saying they're very or somewhat likely to do so, while a whopping 77% of Republicans aren't interested, including 55% who say they're not at all likely to put a mask on again once the pandemic is over.
"The partisan answer is part of it," the pollster said. But circumstances will also dictate how Utahns feel about mask-wearing beyond COVID-19, he said, suggesting that while someone won't bother when they're outdoors and far away from others, they might still reach for a face covering when they're jammed into a sports arena.
"I do think this gives a good indication that while people are ready to put this behind them and think that they can see the end in sight, they do want to be more conscious of health issues, whether it's washing hands or wearing masks, when it's appropriate," Rasmussen said.