Broken Windows And Gutter Masks

As we inch closer to reopening America and trying to get back to the way things were before the Great Shutdown, here’s a thought for hopeful business owners, bar proprietors, and restauranteurs: remember the “broken windows” theory.

As long-time readers of this blog know, “broken windows” theory holds that the physical surroundings communicate important messages to people about social order. If you see a broken window in your neighborhood, and after a few weeks it becomes apparent that no one is going to fix that window, you get the message that your neighborhood isn’t as orderly as it once was, and it causes concern about personal safety and appropriate behavior. The same message is conveyed by the appearance of graffiti on buildings, and increased litter on the streets. All suggest a breakdown in the established social compact that will make people jittery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented broken windows theory on a national scale. Everything changed abruptly about a year ago. Many businesses closed during the initial shutdown, and some of them never reopened. There were fewer people on the streets, and many of those who were out were obviously fearful. Neighborhoods started to look more trashy because people who might otherwise pick things up and throw them away were afraid that loose trash and debris might be vectors for transmission of the disease. And all of those bleak visual cues have a compounding, reinforcing effect.

I was in downtown Columbus yesterday, and I thought about “broken windows” theory as I passed yet another gross, discarded facial mask in a gutter in front of a business. I think those gutter masks send a pretty unmistakable message that things still aren’t back to normal or even close to normal — because if they were, the business owner or a cleaning crew obviously would pick up that mask, and any other litter on the sidewalk. If I were a business owner trying to get the wheels of commerce to really turn again, I would go on mask patrol and make sure that the area around my establishment was free of dirty masks and other negative visual cues that might cause people to refrain from entering.

There are still a lot of nervous people out there. Many of them want the world to get back to normal, but they’ve been cautioned and conditioned to avoid risk. Filthy facemasks in the gutter subconsciously communicate that the risk is still out there.

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