The only thing that can spread faster than a new disease is information. And we’re going to need good information now.
The American people led the charge on social distancing and locking down before the government acted. All the data show as much: Commutes, air travel, shopping, and restaurant reservations all began to show dramatic declines in late February, before stay-at-home orders became part of our collective vocabulary. Now, the self-governing American people are leading themselves out, guidelines from the White House and instructions from state governments be damned.
Data from Apple suggest that in Georgia, 60 percent more people were back on the roads this weekend than had been in mid April. California still has non-essential businesses shut, but the cell-phone data show people are still coming out in hard-hit areas of the state. Even in New York, a rainy and miserable April gave way to inviting May sunshine, and people are beginning to go out more.
In an ideal world, Americans would be going out confident in the knowledge that infections had declined significantly and a fully operating test-and-trace regime was in place to warn the exposed and quarantine the ill. As it is, neither of those things is true, and state and federal leaders still probably can’t keep the majority of Americans inside much longer. Only fear can do that. A big spike in infections and death may push people back inside despite their desperate desire to get back to normal. But the key words there are “desperate desire”: After being told they had to dramatically reorder their lives to save our health-care system, Americans who see that system surviving the initial surge of COVID-19 cases are more than ready to go out and see each other again.
If the government wants to help, its public-health experts need to be appraising us of what’s actually risky and what’s not, where we can mitigate chances of infection and where we cannot. We could surely use regular, scrupulously transparent updates on the development of the scientific community’s thinking about the virus and how to respond to it.
What do public-health experts think of the growing intuition that it doesn’t spread well outside, which is driving people back to the beach? How long does it survive on soft and hard surfaces, really? Should the especially nervous cease disinfecting cardboard boxes delivered to their houses? What about the chilling anecdotes about church choirs and singing congregations? Could churches dramatically curtail risk by going instrumental, or by having virus-negative soloists rather than choirs or congregations do the singing? Can people easily spread the virus while sitting together, but not closely, on a patio or deck? Can larger groups of people who trust each other begin congregating if they follow social-distancing guidelines? Can kids playing with plastic or rubber toys transmit the virus to each other?
We don’t yet have a vaccine for the coronavirus, and it seems likely we’ll be waiting for one — and for a true test-trace-and-quarantine regime — for a good long while. In the meantime, it’s time for our elected officials to recognize that Americans are going out into the world again, and that they will perish for lack of good information about how to do so safely.