The press paid a lot of attention to the American people being out and about over the weekend. In California, the media focused on people flocking to southern California beaches to surf, get some sun, and otherwise do what the Beach Boys told us people do on California beaches. In New York, there were reports of lots of people out and about in Central Park. Here in Columbus, we got some pretty spring days after a series of cold gloomy ones, and that caused a lot of people to get outside, too.
None of this should be a surprise. When the weather warms up in the spring, people naturally want to get outside and enjoy it, whether they live in California or Kalamazoo. But these aren’t normal times, thanks to the coronavirus, and the press attention was all about people flouting governmental orders and not engaging in social distancing.
For the most part, I think Americans, and Ohioans, have done a pretty darned good job of abiding by unprecedented governmental orders. For most of us who haven’t been sent to prison and didn’t experience governmental rationing or curfew orders during World War II, the coronavirus edicts are the biggest and most detailed governmental intrusions into our normal daily lives that we’ve ever experienced. Given the history of contrarianism in the U.S., you’d expect there to be some resistance, but for the most part people have yielded, and accepted the need for the government efforts. No one — and I mean no one — wants to kill people or see the country decimated by a fatal pandemic.
But government leaders need to understand that they can’t move the goalposts on us, either. When the shutdown orders were first issued, they were presented as necessary to “flatten the curve,” protect health care resources from being overwhelmed, and give government time to shore up ventilator and mask supplies. All of that has now been accomplished — and yet some are arguing that the restrictive orders should continue until . . . when or what, exactly? I think many people have the sense that we’ve experienced a bait and switch, and the switch is happening right now. The goalposts seem to be moving from flattening the curve to some point in the future that is more ambiguous and ill-defined — as if some government leaders and modelers and health care experts will “know it when they see it” and let the rest of us in on their decision at their leisure. That perception is not exactly a recipe for broad societal compliance.
The sense of “quarantine fatigue” is real and, I think, is shared by many. Part of it is people getting antsy, and part of it is spring fever, but I think part of it is just the notion that we weigh and accept risk as a matter of course, and build those risk-assessment decisions into our daily lives. If you drive to work or take a driving vacation, you are increasing your risk of death in a traffic accident. If you live in a house with a staircase, you are increasing your risk of a fatal fall. But the government would never think (I hope) of banning driving, or multi-story family homes, or any of the other risks that we encounter and accept on a daily basis.
We all know, intuitively, that we can’t stay sheltering in place forever. We need to get back to work and, equally important, to being permitted the freedom to make rational risk-weighing decisions about our lives. If seniors who have health conditions and are in nursing homes are at high risk, by all means come up with tailored methods to protect them from COVID-19. If wearing masks in subways has a discernible positive effect, by all means require them. And if some people are so worried about the coronavirus that they want to work from home until a vaccine is successfully developed and they have a job that allows them to do so, fine. But the sooner the government stops trying to ban people who have been penned up for 40 days from congregating outside on a beautiful warm day and starts communicating where we are right now and letting people make reasonable risk decisions, the better.