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Study identifies barriers and motivators to physical distancing among Wisconsin residents

A group of UW–Madison researchers partnered with the Wisconsin League of Municipalities and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to measure Wisconsin residents’ self-reported physical distancing practices in late March and early April. The analysis of survey findings, described in a new report, will be used to inform communication efforts surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Wisconsin.

A weighted sample of more than 500 Wisconsin adult residents’ responses are included in the analysis. Overall, a high percentage of Wisconsin residents reported practicing physical distancing, with 61 percent reporting distancing very much.

Other findings related to distancing include:

  • Older residents reported practicing more physical distancing than younger residents (those under 35).
  • There does not appear to be a relationship between political ideology and self-reported physical distancing.
  • Residents in small towns reported the highest rates when compared to mid-size or large cities, with larger cities reporting less distancing behavior.
  • More women reported higher levels of physical distancing when compared to men.
  • Those with higher education (bachelor’s degree or more) reported more physical distancing.
  • Respondents worry about family, community, and the country.

The following barriers and benefits related to physical distancing were identified:

  • Respondents who did not report the highest level of physical distancing reported their barriers to practicing more were:
    • Their situation (work, family, obligations) preventing them from doing so
    • Their perception that most people were overreacting
  • Respondents who did not report the highest level of physical distancing said they would consider practicing more:
    • If it would help their family
    • If they were at high risk of infection
    • Because they are a caring, considerate person
  • Respondents who don’t think physical distancing is effective are less likely to do it.
  • Respondents who don’t think others are practicing physical distancing are less likely to report doing it themselves. Those who think it is the norm to practice physical distancing say they practice it more.

The survey also explored residents’ trust in information sources and channels. The results show that the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), public health experts, university scientists, and World Health Organization (WHO) are the most trusted sources of information about COVID-19.

The report, titled “Self-reported physical distancing in Wisconsin: Preliminary survey results to inform COVID-19 messaging,” is available online at:

The research was funded by the UW–Madison Global Health Institute.